Newcastle traveled all the way to Manchester to face the lads from City on the second weekend of a soul-crushing back-to-back against Liverpool and the Citizens. And things went pretty much as everybody expected with United falling five goals to none against the 2022 Premier League champions-to-be.
Eddie Howe decided to go with a reasonable formation approaching Ancelotti’s Christmas Tree deploying some sort of 4-3-2-1 scheme in which both AM/W (Almirón and Saint-Maximin) were tasked with dropping into the midfield and defensive strata respectively on defensive phases, thus turning that shape into a 5-4-1. Or at least that was the plan.
The first 10 minutes of the game were the best part of it for the men in black and white. They started with an actual higher block than we could have expected, applying some pressure higher up the pitch to limit Manchester City’s opportunities and creative combinations. It certainly looked like a much better strategy than the one used against Liverpool, when the team straight refused to press opting instead for a more reactive approach. Newcastle was building from the back, succeeding with long series of passes, but failing in the final third.
In fact, the first big chance of the game came just eight minutes into it when Chris Wood headed the ball like a toddler would straight to the hands of Ederson, wasting a phenomenal opportunity to put the Magpies ahead and—at least for a while—lead the game against the best time in the Premier League.
Through 15 minutes the possession was 53/47 in favor of Newcastle. Against a team like City, that’s telling.
But of course, something had to give against such a bulldozer of an opponent. It nearly happened around the 15th minute when Cancelo got a clear-cut chance after Saint-Maximin left him alone, and it actually materialized just three minutes later when ASM screwed the defensive coverage for the second time, missed on tracking Cancelo back once more, and allowed him to head a sweet ball to Sterling who didn’t have to sweat his effort to put the ball past Dubravka. And that, from the 20th minute on, the story of this game.
I am going to drop a spoiler, but it makes sense to do so right now because it’ll help you understand everything else later. I said ASM didn’t realize Cancelo was marauding the right-wing on the play leading to the first goal by City, nor the prior one in which he was the one shooting the ball. Well, here are a few screenshots from BBC’s Match of the Day as they analyzed the game on Sunday Night. You can click/tap them to get a larger view.
You can click/tap them to get a larger view. Those four pictures highlight Cancelo’s extraordinary work on the right flank of the pitch. They also tell you all you need to know about ASM’s commitment to defend and cover for Matt Target’s impossible multitasking. I have read here and there about Targett “getting exposed” yesterday. Well, if we’re talking about Saint-Maximin being the one whose mistakes ended exposing Targett, then our thoughts align. Otherwise, I don’t think Targett can’t be blamed at all for what he tried to do against the pair of Raheem Sterling and Joao Cancelo on Sunday.
The first screenshot is just enraging. Cancelo has all the field for him, Targett is covering Sterling and looking at Cancelo at the same time probably wondering how the hell can he multiply to be in two places at once... because ASM is straight refusing to go cover Cancelo from a closer distance even being fully aware of the wing-back location. Nonsensical.
The second one might not be that clear, but just looking at ASM and his defeated body language at the end of his defensive run, right at the moment Cancelo heads the ball toward Sterling, is telling enough. He lost Cancelo running toward Newcastle’s goal, and if Allan can’t win someone on his legs alone, well, then I’m positive he can do nothing else as that’s precisely his main calling card.
As far as the third and fourth captures go, it’s the same over and over again. Sterling and Cancelo pairing to overload and overwork Targett on the right, Saint-Maximin not tracking back, another chance, rinse and repeat. Frustrating as it gets.
Anyway, and getting back to that first goal by City, Newcastle reacted and just five minutes later they had another crack at a goal only for it to be waved off with Bruno getting in the path of Wood’s shot while offside. Bad luck, though break, game over. After that, already 30 minutes into the first half, ASM (by my count) tracked Cancelo back for the first time which was truly a sight to behold.
Sadly, less than 10 minutes from halftime, City found a way to dump the second goal on Newcastle’s nets after Dubravka couldn’t quite hold onto a ball off a corner kick and Laporte put it in. Easy goal after an error from the keeper, once again fostering the rumors (and confirming the need) about signing a new, fresher goalie before the start of the 2022-23 campaign.
Coming off halftime, City substituted Ruben Dias for Fernandinho while Newcastle didn’t make a single change—in pieces or structure. That standstill proved early in the second half the biggest flaw of the Magpies system yesterday: Saint-Maximin and Wood just can’t and won’t ever operate together. The former wants—and does—to launch counterattacks that are just too much for Wood to stay on top of and run in time. It’s like watching a basketball big arriving late on the offensive end of the floor while his teammates rushed the ball forward quickly, and it takes away a lot of the potential damage that Newcastle could inflict to their opponents.
Knowing Pep Guardiola, what happened in the second half was totally predictable. City tried and succeded at putting the game to sleep with never-ending strings of passes, Newcastle fell for the trick, and 15 minutes into the second half the Magpies had barely entered Manchester’s half in possession of the ball. The final 45 minutes pass-maps paint a much clearer picture than any of my words could ever describe.
It was the 60th minute when Rodri found paydirt hitting a header off a corner quick to the right of Newcastle’s goal. Joelinton wasn’t lively enough to intervene and put himself between the Spaniard and the ball; Targett wasn’t quick enough to follow Rodri while avoiding collisions with the rest of the solid bodies standing in the area.
Only a couple of substitutions approaching 70 minutes of play brought a smile to the Toon Army: Callum Wilson and, surprisingly, Kieran Trippier made their comebacks after missing more than ample time injured. And the thing is, the team looked much better than they had through that moment. Perhaps not in true actions and outcomes, but definitely on Howe’s paper and tactical board.
With a forward line now comprised of Bruno launching the attacks, ASM and Almirón (quite a forgettable game from the Paraguayan, must be said) carrying the fall forward getting Bruno’s passes to the space, and Wilson a much quicker and active player than Wood, Newcastle looked entirely different. That’s a combination of players that make sense if the team wants to attempt this sort of kick, counterattacking style against bigger sides. Playing Wood at the top is just a waste in anything other than a ball-lofting/long-ball game style.
Newcastle found a way to build a nice chance with fewer than 10 minutes before reaching the 90’ as Murphy (in for Almirón) put a ball at Wilson’s reach only for the striker to whiff his shooting attempt and entirely miss on hitting the ball at all. Just wasn’t meant to be on Sunday for the Magpies.
Foden put up the fourth and Sterling added wood to the fire with the fifth and final game to make it a day and apply extra damage to Newcastle and, more than anything, to Liverpool in the title race.
Newcastle now down to the 13th place with a couple of games left on their schedule, one tough, the other one not so much. The Magpies still can finish the season anywhere from ninth to 17th. Good thing the lads already dodged relegation.