Rafa Benítez is the major responsible for the excellent campaign of Newcastle after the ups and downs of 2015/2016 season. He initiated the season commanding Real Madrid in Champions League, that the Merengues won, but ended without avoiding the relegation of Magpies to the Championship.
With only 10 games in the Premier League, the Spanish manager won 13 points against 25 points in 28 games of Steve McClaren. If Benítez had started the season in Newcastle following the 1,3 average points per game, the northern England team would have finished the season in 11th place with 49 points, far above the 18th place with 37 points and the relegation.
In the last years the club didn’t take the best options, spending a lot of money in transfers that didn’t justify the investment. The best scenario and more beneficial for both parts was for Rafa Benítez to stay and that’s what happened. Newcastle can count with an experienced manager with the ability to bring the golden times of Magpies. On the other hand, the old Real Madrid manager has time to implement his game ideas. Although the focus is the immediate return to the Premier League, Benítez will have less pressure than in his last clubs and this could be a point in favor in this partnership.
With around 65 M€ invested in new signings and more than 100 M€ in departures, Newcastle has begun this season completely renewed with a roster filled with good options for every sector. After the upsetting, irregular start the club is going through a great phase taking the 1st place with 40 points, 36 goals scored and 14 goals suffered.
In the defensive moments, Newcastle aligns in a 1-4-4-1-1 with a compact block, lines well defined and a medium-low block.
The 14 goals suffered makes Benítez´s players the 2nd best defense in the competition, with 3 more goals than Brighton, 2nd place at the time with 38 points. Despite having suffered few goals in 18 matches, Newcastle expose some fragility in the defensive process.
The offensive duo doesn’t pressure the ball in the opponent´s 1st phase of construction and has a low pace reaction. The team tries to reorganize in their defensive midfield, with the wingers being the first players to pressure when the ball gets in the opponent’s full backs. This pressure is made in order to obligate the opponent to play in the central lane or step back, with Newcastle being really comfortable in this strategy and waiting for the opponent’s mistake.
The most used central backs, Clark and Lascelles, have the tendency to follow the movements of the forwards and being dragged in the marking, opening spaces in the central lane which can be explored due to the lack of concentration and aggressiveness of the midfield along the game.
Image 1 – Defensive organization against QPR
Depth control by the defensive line, in some moments of the game, reveals one of the team’s defensive problems. When Newcastle loses the ball in the offensive midfield, specially in the 2nd and 3rd offensive phase, they try to react quickly and restrict the opponent’s offensive transition, by some winger’s defensive actions.
With the team up in the field, there is some space behind the full backs that can be used, due to the lack of Newcastle’s ability to cover this spaces in the side lanes.
Image 2 – Space in the back against Aston Villa
In the set plays, Lascelles, Clark, Dummett, Hayden and Gouffran make an individual marking with the rest of the team getting back in order to set a zonal defending.
In the positive side, we can highlight the winger´s defensive solidarity to offer defensive support to the full backs, and most of the times the team promotes numerical advantage in the side lanes if they chose not to pressure upfront and down their lines, giving the initiative to the opponent. In this phase, it is very hard for the opponent to pass Newcastle’s defensive block.
Offensively Newcastle presents itself in a 1-4-2-3-1 or 1-4-4-2, depending on Pérez or Diamé support to Mitrovic or Gayle (best scorer of the Championship with 13 goals).
Benítez choose to play from behind with the goalkeeper Darlow or Sels playing with short pass. The central back duo reveals an excellent relationship with the ball, playing from behind when the opposite forwards don’t pressure the ball. Oftentimes, Clark and Lascelles unbalance in this stage, risking to put the ball at the wings.
In the side lanes, Dumment has been occupying the left side with not much competition but on the right side Anita with his tactical quality and consistency offers other arguments from the defensive perspective contrary to the most used player. Yedlin has been chosen due to his speed, offensive inclination and technical ability.
Image 3 – Yedlin unbalancing on the side and serving Shelvey
In the midfield, Hayden has been giving balance to the team, following Shelvey, the center of operations in the offensive moments. A hard worker with a Shakespeare vein. With a passing efficiency higher than 80%, the all around midfielder looks like it’s back to the level he showed us in his best period in Swansea. He takes the game to himself, controls the game, dribbles, passes, shoots and scores. The box-to-box of the Championship. All the team’s offensive maneuvers pass through him. He sets the pace and destiny of every play.
Image 4 – Shelvey exploring the backside of the opponent´s defense
In order to go give width, Rafa Benítez choose to place Ritchie as a left winger and Gouffran on the right side but they change sides, when it’s necessary to block the opponent’s initiative and explore inside movements. Atsu is another winger to pay attention, being used many times to unbalance the match with his speed and unpredictability.
Up front, Mitrovic and Gayle already had Pérez and Diamé as supporter teammates, resulting in multiple unique duos. The Serbian striker is a fixed player, therefore a reference when the team feels more pressured and has to play a direct style of football. Gayle has more mobility and has the ability to show up in the lines, taking the defenders with him, opening space for the forward movements of the midfielders.
With 36 goals until this moment, the key to Newcastle’s success can be explained by the midfield strength, with excellent passing and vision, choosing to maintain ball possession and breaking passes to the opponent’s back, taking advantage of the wingers speed. Despite not placing too many men in scoring zones, the attack with mobility, speed, irreverent and technical ability, help to decide the matches with their individual initiatives.
In the offensive transitions, Shelvey, always him, sets Ritchie, Gouffran and Yedling in depth to take advantage of the easy way they unfold offensively.
In the set plays, Shelvey and Ritchie take the ball to himselfs having Clark, Lascelles, Diamé, Mitrovic or Gayle has references coming from behind to head for the goal.
By Francisco Gomes da Silva