Newcastle couldn’t have asked for more as they got to face a newly promoted side on their first game of the season and at home on top of everything. Forest flew to Tyneside all the way from Nottingham with hopes of starting their Premier League comeback with at least something positive and carrying 11 new faces as part of a revamped roster. Nott. Forest is an England classic side putting all of their money where their mouths are at in order to stay in the ELP for at least two seasons while Newcastle, another long-time member of the English Royalty, has the money but not the crazy brains to be wasting it. On to the match breakdown.
In a rather unsurprising way, Eddie Howe played his most used hand of cards and deployed his favored 4-3-3 formation against minnow Nott. Forest. The only real doubt about this was whether Howe would use Joe Willock or Sean Longstaff as the third mid-man and he ended up opting for the younger former instead of the older latter in a very sensical approach to this game. Dan Burn got to start on the left side of the center-back pairing along with Fabian Schar, relegating summer-signee Sven Botman to the bench.
As the board above shows, there was no real competition in terms of overall control and play over the full game with only two men (the two CBs) from Newcastle sitting on their own half on average and only two from Nottingham (their lone striker and AMF Jesse Lingard) on Newcastle’s half for the larger part of the game. The Magpies, finishing the game with an insulting 61% possession of the ball, were the ones leaning on the right side of their attack in terms of creating combinations with the surprising pace-changing plays coming from the other side thanks to the sudden brilliance of Joelinton and Saint-Maximin.
Bruno manned the pivot playing an extraordinary deep-lying playmaker role for Newcastle next to a box-to-box mammoth of a man in Joelinton and a very accomplished Willock in his first start since Apr. 30 against Liverpool on MD35 last season.
Instead of looking at anything Newcastle, it makes more sense to take a quick glance at Forest’s pass map to get an idea of how much they struggle in their first 45 minutes back in the top flight of English football. Of their 169 first-half passes, only 89 were successful. Just one of those was good to travel from their own half to Newcastle’s final third, and Forest only completed 12 total passes in that area of the pitch over the first 45 minutes. Kudos to the Magpies’ pressure from the get-go, as it suffocated the lads from Nottingham from Dean Henderson upwards.
Though the average positions ended painting the picture of a midfield trio comprised of a single pivot (Bruno) along with a couple of supplementary midfielders (Joelinton, more offensive; and Willock, holding a bit more), the truth is that not even 10 minutes into the game it was clear how Howe was about freedom of movement and duty-handling when it comes to that part of his formation.
One thing was clear barely 10 minutes into the game and that was, in fact, how lucky Newcastle was to face a new Premier League side instead of an established team to kick the season off. Forest never got a proper footing of the game, looked lost for basically the entire match, and they can be thankful for having landed just a couple of blows instead of a bag full of bangers—more because of Magpie mistakes and bad finishing rather than their own defensive efforts.
Halfway through the first half Newcastle had dominated the game, there was no hint at that changing at all any time soon, but chances were definitely not arriving—unless you count corner kicks as key opportunities, something the Magpies excelled at getting (seven alone in the first half, four more in the second) but also something they never found a way to materialize and turn into actual goalscoring chances and goals.
Saint-Maximin brought his dance moves and used them properly, Almirón felt a little bit lost for a while but had a couple of isolated plays in which he showed his full skill set and instilled fear in Forest’s defense, and the late arrival of Bruno, Joelinton, and Willock from deeper positions was always a threat for the Tricky Trees to deal with as those moves caused disrespectful overloads hard to manage by the newcomers.
Everything was clicking and Bruno’s through balls were delighting the crowd nearly on a play-by-play basis, but the shots on goal were low at six on target when the final whistle arrived. Domination, yes. Clear-cut-high-xG-nerdo chances, no.
Something had to change, and what that change would entail was very clear. Bomb. Nott. With. Shots.
It is not that Newcastle really applied that tactic to a tee, but the Magpies in fact went closer to the area when attempting to score the first goal rather than choosing to went with long shots and corner-kick finishes. That’s why only Fabian Schar’s goal-scoring strike came from outside of the penalty area in the second half compared to eight other shots attempted from inside of it.
Speaking of which. Holy cannoli. Where you at, Fabi Schar!? Absolute banger by the Swish lad before reaching the 60th minute to open the score once and for all and paint a much more realistic picture of what was happening on the pitch up to that point, that was. I had been preaching it, Howe seemed to have entered that thinking too, and it happened when Schar decided to screw possession and passes and instead decided to bang a bomb toward the right upper corner—and off the post—of Henderson's goal to hit Newcastle’s first goal of the season. Who would have thought?
That goal was all Nottingham Forest needed to enter panic mode in full force. They had not done anything to make one thing about a potential draw being the final result, let alone an upset of Newcastle, but Schar’s play just put the nails in their coffin for good. As if they weren’t confused enough, Howe started to play mind tricks on Forest by rotating the midfield trio and mixing and matching very fluid shapes when it comes to his formation.
We saw everything from a flat 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1, a 4-1-2-3, and everything in between. ASM was roaming the pitch however and whenever he pleased for a while. Almirón spent some spare moments in the AMF position. Bruno, Joelinton, and Willock became blurs of each other on a rotating basis driving opponents crazy and leaving them chasing shadows while jogging around St James’ Park neon-green grass.
And with the footy gods looking from above and realizing a one-goal difference wasn’t enough, they descended on Earth to inhabit Callum Wilson’s right foot and to help him gracefully chip Joelinton’s left-side pass into the net for the final 2-0 scoreline. Five seasons, four years scoring in the first game of the campaign. Only Callum.
Only Callum, indeed. As good as Wilson was yesterday—he was far from fantastic, mind you—he is the only player with a viable path toward getting large doses of playing time going forward at the striker position. Chris Wood is always going to be an option, of course, but he has the skill set of a woodchopper more than the one pertaining to a bona fide Premier League professional performer tasked with scoring goals. Whether the squad is strengthened with a non-pure striker such as James Maddison or Timo Werner, or an actual center forward in the vein of Luis Muriel, someone has to arrive because of Wilson’s injury proneness.
Newcastle and its faithful probably wish every game was like this, but sadly they won’t. The competition will get better each passing week, legs will start to weaken as the season grows older, and there is a freaking World Cup smacked right in the middle of everything. Actually, you need not look further than this very month to see that there are some very scary games coming: Liverpool and Man. City are in the Magpies’ schedule before we even turn the calendar page to September. Just imagine.
A good run of summer results might make Newcastle’s season before it even starts, but the club better go one game at a time and go from there, building slowly but surely toward their expected and wanted conventional-football-granting final place. For now, and with Sunday/Monday games yet to go down, the Magpies sit at the top of the table with all three maximum points earned and in their bag, only behind Tottenham on a mere one-goal difference.
Dreams stay alive. Gotta keep it going. Howay the lads!