It’s been a while since the last time the neon-green grass of St. James’ Park got primetime attention, but it happened again yesterday in Newcastle Upon Tyne. The lads from Arsenal were the latest to visit SJP when they got molly-rocked by a 2-0 final score in the Premier League—thus killing their chances at a UCL bid—and it was time for Atalanta yesterday to experience what playing in Newcastle means: scoring yourself a defeat.
The Geordie Faithful experienced a game that lacked the oomph of the recent match against Benfica in terms of goals and raucous actions, yes, but the 40K that could watch it live on location and the millions watching on free streams around the globe—not in UK and Spain, though, because the club seemingly hates locals and sunny-tanned foreigners—went home pleased with the team bagging another W.
This was a very different game for the Magpies and it showed in coach Eddie Howe’s approach to it. No longer there were 11 substitutions coming off halftime. Nor was there a full set of two first-team-level available men on the pitch and the bench. Far from it. Just peep at the starting XI here, focus on the substitution icons (red flags to the upper left side of the shirt icons), and compare those in Newcastle’s side with the ones on Atalanta’s.
Yes, there was a huge difference. Newcastle deployed 11 men for starters, but only three of them got subbed out along the way—with the first change coming as late as in the 82nd minute of play with Matty Longstaff getting to the pitch in relief of Jacob Murphy. In fact, and although not depicted above, Howe’s bench was made of lads that most casual fans might have never heard of: Matt Bondswell, Alex Murphy, Lucas De Bolle, Dylan Stephenson, Jamie Miley, and Santiago Muñoz among them—with starlet Jay Turner-Cooke also present but ultimately not playing.
Another youngster present in the Magpie continent, though getting playing time: Elliot “Geordie Maradona” Anderson, the kid that keeps on giving. Anderson has yet to finish a loan deal out of Newcastle—assuming that’s still the club’s plan—but he’s making a very strong case for himself to remain in the first-time squad for the full season or at least until the World Cup break takes place in November and December. Such is Newcastle’s status in the middle/front part of the pitch, which doesn’t mean Elliot has been just good enough to make the cut, tho.
If Benfica made for a nice challenge, then Atalanta was supposed to be at least on par with the Portuguese. At the end of the day, Atalanta is based in one of the Power Five leagues in Europe and finished 8th in the Serie A last season, only three points off seventh-place Fiorentina for a bid to play continental football. Atalanta, mind you, reached the quarterfinals of the Europa League last season before getting eliminated by RB Leipzig.
It is always nice to sit and watch Newcastle try to build its way forward with short and clever combinations of passes, but this team is still a distance away from the likes of Guardiola’s Manchester City or Barcelona teams of yesteryear. Don’t get it for what it is not, but please get where I come from. Thus, the save by Nick Pope to the first Atalanta’s chance of the game after the Magpies lost possession of the ball trying to slowly build their way out of the back. Repetition, repetition, repetition. Reps will get them there, but talent is a must and there’s some lack of it when the trio of Bruno/Joelinton/Jonjo isn’t around to handle the ball-moving tasks.
With fewer than 25 minutes on the clock but quickly approaching there, Trippier got the ball on the right side of the pitch and into the final third to do what wing-backs are expected to do under Eddie Howe and a side led by giant Chris Wood at the lone-striker spot: unfruitfully cross the ball.
Almirón put on a masterful effort in bringing the ball forward on that play with a good run across the left sideline, a stop, a pass to the center of the pitch that was rerouted to Tripps, and finally the veteran crossing a ball that never found Wood’s head and that Ryan Fraser couldn’t save from going out.
It feels like beating a dead horse, but as repetitive as we’ve sounded for months now, playing Wood up front makes zero sense with the players available for Howe to line up and more often than not surrounding the New Zealander. Jacob Murphy is a spark. Almirón is lightning-quick. Ryan Fraser is Costco Messi. ASM isn’t waiting for anyone to arrive in the box. The fit is nowhere to be found.
Imagine playing Shaquille O’Neal on a team full of Ish Smiths. He wouldn’t smell shit. By the time he reached the offensive rim, it’d already be time for him to go defend and bumrush the defensive side of things. It is what it is. And that is what Wood is in this team.
I’m mentioning that because of a first-half run by Jacob Murphy in which Almirón played the center-forward part accompanying Murphy and giving him support—to an extent, if only in presence—through his rush. That counter turned into a minute-long offensive barrage that ended in nothing and that—oh, snap!—included crosses trying to find Wood’s head but never taking advantage of the very tall man’s goalscoring prowess, assuming it’s somewhere in him these days.
Wood being Wood, though, he was the man finding the net even if it only happened after another sparkplug in young gun Elliot Anderson got the ball inside the box, touched it once, and gained a penalty kick for the Kiwi to transform. His third United goal in seven months (second from the PK spot.) Triple what Almirón in the whole 2021-22 Premier League! Quite the coup, ain’t it biggie!? Sheesh.
Chris Wood from the spot!— Newcastle United FC (@NUFC) July 29, 2022
You have to appreciate what Howe has accomplished in the short time he’s been around. The team bites on defense from the moment the opposition grabs hold of the ball. The pressure—on a late-July afternoon friendly just a week from playing real games and with another Friendly scheduled to go down mid-Saturday—was suffocating. Atalanta was having trouble bringing the ball outside of their area in any type of controlled way. Kudos to the Magpie Men as they were the ones screwing it all up for the Italian lads.
Miggy had his ever-present left-foot chance on another one-on-one against Atalanta’s keeper only for it to get deflected and to add wood to the left-leg-exclusively haters' mob. It could—should—have been the 2-0 and a much better-looking result, but it’s not that we hate the ultimate score. Nott Forest will check the line, get comfortable, and allow Newcastle more room than it should. We approve.
It took Wood 90 minutes to flash a Neymaresque move with a back-heel pass to Matt Targett that saw the latter find himself alone inside the penalty area with sub-GK Juan Russo blocking his effort after the wing-back got unbalanced by the Italian side defender covering him on D.
The ref blew the whistle, Newcastle defeated another top-quality continental opponent, and the Men in Black are just a week away from launching their Premier League bid where the strongest competition awaits.
The next game is this Saturday against Athletic Bilbao. Don’t miss it, as it’ll also be streamed for free. Unless you happen to live in Spain or the UK, that is.
Howay the Lads!