To preface, it wasn’t all bad.
There were undoubtedly positive moments, dare I say even stretches, during last Wednesday’s match, a 3-1 loss at hands of Tottenham Hotspur in an empty and echoey St James’ Park. Matt Ritchie’s strike, a rocket off the Scotsman’s left boot that has become his calling card this season, was certainly the top moment for the Toon.
We were also treated to an array of trademark labyrinthian runs by Allan Saint-Maximin, a deft header by Dwight Gayle that struck the post, and energetic flairs of quality from Valentino Lazaro coming off the bench in the second half. In a match that few people expected Newcastle to win, they performed admirably and maintained a fighting chance for much of the ninety minutes against a side higher than them in the table.
Which makes me wonder why I walked away from my television feeling immensely frustrated and mentally exhausted after watching the entirety of the match.
The main gripes that I have lie on a back five of Ritchie-Fernandez-Schar-Krafth-Yedlin, a patchwork group that does little to instill confidence in the defensive soundness of the lineup. The Newcastle defensive ranks have been riddled by injuries, there is no denying that, but electing to anchor the line with Fabian Schar, perhaps the most heavily criticised player in recent weeks, was a questionable decision. Fernandez has been widely regarded as one of Newcastle best players this season, so utilizing his superior hight and physicality in the middle of the defense would seem to be a logical choice.
Taking a step back, why did Bruce resort to a back five? In the previous seven matches since the restart, Newcastle had employed a five-man defense only twice, in 2-0 and 5-0 defeats against Manchester City. Alternatively, when playing a four-man backline, Newcastle had only conceded four goals from open play in the other five matches of that span. Finally, in Spurs you had a team that had only scored four goals in their previous four matches. Despite boasting world class attacking talent in Harry Kane and Heung-min Son, they were a side not producing at an exceptionally impressive clip.
With the healthy personnel at his disposal, Bruce could have certainly employed a back four of Ritchie-Schar-Fernandez-Krafth/Manquillo, with all four of those players in their natural positions. Instead, he elected to make these four concurrently bizarre decisions:
- Choosing a defensive shape that had consistently proved ineffective this season
- Selecting Fabian Schar, our weakest CB at the moment, as the defensive anchor of a center-back trio
- Forcing Emil Krafth, an out-and-out RB who had never played center-back in a professional game before coming to Newcastle, into the trio
- Selecting DeAndre Yedlin in front of Javier Manquillo to start at right-back, despite the former being regarded as one of our most underperforming players this season
Taking a look at the Tottenham’s first goal, danger seemed to be avoided after Schar collected a Serge Aurier cross. However, a careless giveaway by the Swiss led to Spurs regaining possession, with the ball being moved across the pitch to Son on the left-wing.
We see in the image above that Yedlin proceeds to give the Korean striker far too much space and room in the box, leading to a smart finish for Spurs’ first goal. Blame also must be given to Martin Dubravka, having been beaten at his front post, but Yedlin needs to be tightening to his man and not allowing Son to have such an easy time getting the shot away. One could argue that Manquillo, a more confident and physical right-back, would have done a better job closing this space and preventing a potential issue for the keeper.
On the second Spurs goal, Steven Bergwijn received the ball on the right wing with acres of space. As you can see in the left part of the above image, Dwight Gayle, Matt Ritchie, and Federico Fernandez all were within ten yards or so of the attacker, yet did not get close enough to prevent a cross. Bergwijn whipped in a ball to the top of the six-yard box, providing Harry Kane with an uncontested header that nestled in the far corner of Dubravka’s net.
The first question to be asked is why Kane was able to head the ball with so much ease. Rewatching the goal shows a simple run off the back shoulder of Krafth, with the Swede left in no man’s land unsuccessfully flailing for a clearance. A simple mistake, but a costly one, as we again see problems arising from a Newcastle defender not being tight enough to his man.
The second question is why Krafth was the defender marking Kane in the first place. As mentioned earlier in the article, Krafth is not a natural center-back, and is the smallest of all three men playing in the center of that defense. It seems to reason that on a situation like this with Kane as the only Spurs attacker in the box, he should be man marked by either Schar or Fernandez, far more experienced and physical defenders.
In summation, this loss was largely a mixed cocktail of Steve Bruce’s drunkenly absentminded tactics, made bitter by a dash of defensive mental lapses. Puzzling decisions in the lineup choice, a lack of insightful in-game instructions to close down space quickly, and preventable mistakes from a defense constructed to fall apart. A match we were not expected to win, but one that we lost all too easily.