It’s fourteen long years since Newcastle United last graced the quarter-final of the FA Cup. It was the season before Mike Ashley paid £135m for the club and set to embark on a one-man mission to dampen the hopes and dreams of an entire fan base. Enter Steve Bruce. Whatever his faults (and they’ve been discussed at length this season), Bruce has done what no other manager in Ashley era has and guided us to within two games of an FA Cup Final.
The tie was originally scheduled for Saturday 21 March @ 7pm and it doesn’t take much to imagine just how electric the atmosphere would’ve been that night. In a cruel blow for us United fans, after such a long wait, we have to stay away from our ‘cathedral on the hill’ on Sunday evening and watch the drama unfold on our TV and laptop screens instead. These are the types of games a packed St James’ Park was made for and, without our ‘12th man’, the task of dispatching City has become even more daunting… but not impossible.
In this analysis we’ll take a look at what we can learn for City’s recent results and how Steve Bruce might set his team up on Sunday.
A City wobble?
Until Thursday night, City had looked imperious since the season restarted, with Pep’s team having run out winners against both Arsenal and Burnley with an aggregate score of 8-0. However, that all changed when City were turned over 2-1 by Frank Lampard’s Chelsea team in what should be used as blueprint performance for Steve Bruce’s men to follow. Chelsea played almost the perfect game against City and inflicted a defeat which confirmed Liverpool as this season’s Premier League title winners – a bitter pill for Guardiola and City to swallow. Truth be told though, the title had been decided long ago but Pep will be looking for his team to respond in the best way, which is to win back to back FA Cups for the first time in the clubs history. The Citizens have had a relatively easy journey in the cup so far having played Port Vale, Sheffield Wednesday and Fulham along the way, so Newcastle will be hoping to provide stiffer opposition when the sides meet on Sunday.
We already know Sergio Aguero will be missing for the game after he required knee surgery on an injury picked up against Burnley. Aguero has been a thorn in Newcastle’s side since he joined City, scoring 14 goals in just 12 games against us – so I wish him well on his recovery, but I’m glad he won’t feature in the Quarter-final. Brazilian midfielder come centre back Fernandinho is also unavailable due to the red card he picked up against Chelsea for a handball on the line (was he auditioning for his next positional move to goalkeeper?). These are two big players for City to be without and we’ll take anything we can get to increase our chances of victory.
Guardiola has bemoaned the congested fixture list and said he had no real options to rotate his squad against Chelsea. His team will have had less than 72 hours to recover before they play again, and it does make you wonder just how important the extra days’ rest could be for Newcastle. Guardiola’s tears over squad rotation won’t garner him much sympathy on Tyneside though, as he was still able to name Gabriel Jesus, Leroy Sané, Nicolas Otamendi and David Silva on his bench against Chelsea – just the £142m worth of talent, which is more than half of our entire squad’s value. Despite the Spaniard’s claims, he has a squad packed full of world class players to choose from.
Guardiola wants his team to make the pitch as wide as possible as he looks to stretch opposition teams horizontally and create space between the lines for the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva. They build play from the back with their full backs hugging the touchline when Ederson has the ball - this forces the opposition forwards to choose whether to press the centre, allowing the pass to the FBs, or cut out the pass to the full backs and leave the central passing lanes open. City actively want teams to press against them as this opens space - they work the ball with short, sharp passing and, once a space appears, they pick up the pace and look to break the lines and create a chances.
“it’s not possession, or one-touch football that matters, but the intention behind it (disorganising the opposition). How do you disorganise them? With fast, tight, focused passing” Pep Guardiola
Guardiola seeks positional dominance in dangerous areas and aims to create a numerical advantage in the middle of the pitch by packing players into this area. Overloading the middle in this way draws defenders in and leaves the City wingers 1v1 with the opposition FBs – this opens space for the City full backs to make an over or under-lapping run into space in the attacking third. Their positional play is based on specific zonal markings on the pitch which Pep drills into his team so they know exactly what to do depending on where the ball is on the pitch. Their overall aim is to arrive at the penalty area with controlled possession, ready to create high-quality chances. This style of play has resulted in City creating the best chances, and scoring and the most goals, in the Premier League this season.
Charting a course to victory
Burnley suffered a 5-0 drubbing at the hands of City last Monday, only registering one off target shot all game. City on the other hand enjoyed 71% of possession and clocked up 18 shots on the Burnley goal, putting the game out of sight in the first half. Burnley were set up in a 4-4-2 and defended more passively than usual (registering 40% less presses in this game compared to their season average) as they attempted to keep their shape. Sean Dyche’s defensive plan was built around staying compact, shielding the ball out to the wing, and crowding out the City ball receivers in the central area just outside the 18-yard box.
This obviously didn’t work on the night. City scored from two dead ball situations, the first was a corner laid off to Phil Foden on the edge of the box who’s crisp, low show beat Nick Pope, the second was a Mahrez penalty after Aguero was fouled in the area. The remaining City goals were classic examples of them committing men forward, overloading the attacking third, and keeping their width to bypass the Burnley system. As Burnley tried to shield the City attackers out wide the compact back four drifted towards the ball – this left the players on the opposite side of the pitch free to receive the ball in the penalty area. This shows how dangerous City can be with their width and numerical advantage and could lean Bruce towards playing five at the back to provide more cover in the wide areas, whilst keeping the centre of the pitch congested.
If Burnley aren’t the example to follow, then who is? Well, based on Thursday night, Chelsea are the obvious choice. Though Frank Lampard may have better players at his disposal, the core principles of Chelsea’s victory can still be applied by Newcastle. The task for the opposing team is to find a way to disrupt the City attacking machine which is what Chelsea were able to do on the night. This season City have averaged 44 touches per game in the opposition penalty area but against Chelsea it was just 26 as their defensive block held firm, forcing City into taking shots from outside the 18-yard box. This excellent thread by @thirtyfeet goes into more detail about how Chelsea were able to do this.
In his post-match interview, Pep Guardiola said it was Chelsea’s defensive structure and physicality that won them the game. One player who was crucial to this defensive structure was N’Golo Kante. The Frenchman’s positional play in CDM was ultra-disciplined, allowing his team to stay compact and prevent City from playing between the lines. He was given the specific task of limiting the space and movement of City’s danger players such as De Bruyne and Sterling which disrupted City’s attacking patterns. Unfortunately, Newcastle don’t have a player of the same caliber of Kante.
With Isaac Hayden a doubt for the game, we look really light in this area. Hayden has been one of Newcastle’s best players since the season restarted and he offers more mobility and physicality than either Shelvey or Bentaleb and he will be a big miss if he’s ruled out of the game. There have been calls from some fans for Fabian Schär to start in CDM and, whilst I can their sentiment, the Swiss defender has only played 68 minutes of his career in that position. The City midfield are arguably the best in the world and I personally feel that it is too much of a risk to put someone in there with so little experience of playing as a midfielder, regardless of how good a footballer he is.
Newcastle are unbeaten in their last two games against City at St James’ Park and both times we’ve played with five at the back. Therefore, despite Bruce’s much heralded change in system to a back four, I expect him to return to playing with three centre-backs for the City game. His logic in doing so will be to keep things tight by ‘parking the bus’ and making the central areas congested. He will want to make it difficult for players like De Bruyne and David Silva to have time on the ball and dictate play in front of our 18-yard-box. A good example to follow here are Wolves as they’ve beaten City twice this season using a similar system. During these games Wolves managed to limit City to just 22 touches in their penalty area, which is fantastic when you consider City usually have double that per game.
If Bruce does opt for three centre backs, I expect Fabian Schär to join Lascelles and Fernandez with either Yedlin or Lazaro replacing Javier Manquillo. Yedlin offers more pace which will be important on the counterattack, however, Lazaro offers a more progressive threat and has quality from set pieces. In the middle Bentaleb is suspended due to picking up two yellow cards FA Cup against Oxford United and West Brom, so Bruce will be praying Hayden is fit to start so he can resume his partnership with Jonjo Shelvey. For reasons already discussed, centre midfield will be crucial to determining the outcome of this games so Bruce may even choose to play a 5-3-2 with all three of Hayden, Shelvey and Matty Longstaff (if fit) starting the game and either Saint-Maximin or Almirón dropping to the bench.
Assuming Bruce doesn’t drop one of our two best counterattacking players, I think we’ll see the same front three starting this game as we’ve seen most of this season with Saint-Maximin, Almirón and Joelinton leading the line. In my opinion, Andy Carroll is more effective coming on for the closing stages of a game, rather from the start. I can think of nothing less a tired central defender would like to see than a fresh Andy Carroll being introduced to the game. The big Geordie striker causes a nightmare for opposition defences and has assisted the most goals per touch of the ball in the PL this season – and what a game this would be for him to score his first goal since returning to his boyhood club. Bruce will be hoping his side can keep it tight until the final 20 minutes, at which point he can look to introduce Carroll and Gayle in the hope they can combine as well as they did against Villa and earn his side a place in the Semi-final.
I expect City to use their familiar 4-3-3 formation. With Fernandinho suspended, Guardiola doesn’t have much option other than to start with Laporte and Otamendi at centre back, although Jon Stones is being assessed for a foot injury and he may still feature. Pep has decisions to make out wide as Riyad Mahrez, who’s be excellent this year, has started the last two games, whilst Raheem Sterling also played the full 90 minutes on Thursday. The Spaniard has options to rotate these players with Phil Foden having played down the left against Burnley (and scoring twice) whilst fleet-footed Leroy Sane is always a danger when he’s on the pitch. City’s attacking heartbeat is in the number 8 positions and in November’s game at St James’ Park he started with both Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva – might he do the same again on Sunday? Finally, upfront, I expect to see the Brazilian Gabriel Jesus despite City utilizing Bernardo Silva as false nine against Chelsea.
If wage bill was an accurate indicator of success, then you would have City down as nailed on winners for Sunday. Their wage bill is an eye watering £260m per year which is almost seven times higher than Newcastle’s – just think about that for a moment. Luckily for us, football doesn’t work like that; anything can happen in one game and we’ve proven over recent seasons that we can get a result against City. I would even go as far as to argue that City’s style (but not their quality) suits us better than teams like Aston Villa. I think we struggle to break teams down when they sit back and surrender possession, however, when you play City you know you won’t have much of the ball and your main weapon is going to be your counterattack.
With the pace of Saint-Maximin and Almirón we always offer a threat on the counter and City’s high defensive line can be susceptible to this, however, Newcastle will only win this game if we keep our defensive structure and are clinical with our chances when they come. We’ve waited fourteen years for this so it would be a massive shame if we don’t we don’t put everything into this game and give ourselves a chance of winning it as we approach the last quarter of the match. If we can do this, and we have luck on our side, then I believe the introduction of big Andy Carroll can turn this game in our favor and secure a famous win for the Magpies. HOWAY THE LADS!