I wear the caveat of shame, but I was right about Newcastle’s deep defences

Sheffield United 0 vs Newcastle United 2, 5 Dec 2019

Well, I am today wearing a big pink caveat to atone for the over-confidence implicit in my pre-match blog post.

But I am satisfied that I called the shape of the game correctly. Newcastle demonstrated an almost bizarre unwillingness to press and a defensive depth that would have pleased WW2 Soviet generals*. As a result, some Blades numbers were Man City-like. More of that below.

What can we learn from this most disappointing of defeats? (I’m leaving VAR out of this, btw).

I think Wilder and Knill took the right approach to start — we’d outshot Newcastle by 8-to-1 with 5 on target by the start of the second half — but I think we paid the price for not having the tactics to winkle out a stubbornly dug-in opponent. More of that below too.

They made us look like Man City (except in one key stat)

Last night we broke a lot of records for the season so far. They were:

  • Most touches (883)
  • Most passes (758)
  • Most deep completions (passes in final 20m) (34)
  • Most touches in the opponent’s box (31)
  • Most touches in the final third (285)
  • Second highest average line (55.2m — against Leicester it was 56.2m)
  • Least direct play (39% of pass distance was towards goal — Man City average 36%)

Tellingly, the one stat that wasn’t a record was shots (13). This was fewer than against Southampton, Palace and Tottenham and only one more than against Liverpool and Manchester Utd.

Here’s our passmap. You can see the areas of the pitch that Newcastle occupied in and around their box.


Here are our pass numbers, bucketed into 10-minute periods. There’s only one spell where Newcastle passed more than we did.


Here’s our average player position map. Only three United players average positions was in our own half. By contrast, only three Newcastle starting players average positions was in our half.

plot of chunk unnamed-chunk-15

Newcastle’s remarkable aversion to pressing

This chart shows United’s passes in the top 3/5 of the pitch and Newcastle’s defensive actions in the same area. The lack of pressing is quite staggering and is a result of not spending much time in our half, and being very happy to allow us to come onto them.


This is the Blades pressing map, for a bit of contrast. At a PPDA (passes per defensive action) of 5.82, that’s a reflection of a diametrically opposed approach in which we aimed to retain the ball when we had it and get it back if we didn’t.


Did Wilder get it right?

Knowing that Newcastle would sit in, CW/AK went for a mostly familiar starting line-up, but with Billy and Oli up front. In Billy’s case in particular that seemed to be predicated on the likelihood we would play high and pass lots and get our chances without the need for masses of pace. It was going to be about grinding them down from lots of high possession.

And to a large extent it worked. By the second half we’d had enough chances and shots on target to justify being ahead, and it’s fair to say Newcastle’s keeper played a massive part in that.

So, I think pretty much we got the first stages of the game right.

Could we have changed things? In a way that made a difference?

I think we could. When Mousset came on he was effectivly asked to do the same as the forwards had been doing all night; to try and grind away at getting through a very crowded final third and heavily-fortified penalty area.

And lately we seem to have realised that that approach doesn’t work for us. So, we’ve adapted to use of more direct tactics, as I’ve outlined here.

This works for two reasons. Firstly, against top class opposition we’re likely to be pushed further back up the pitch than we were in the lower divisions. Secondly, against defences that are a cut above what we met in L1 and the Championship it simply doesn’t work to play high and try to fight our way into the box all the time.

Instead, we seem now to more often break from the middle, often using Mousse’s pace to create something in much more open territory. Last night that space wasn’t available, and I think what was lacking was the ability to pull Newcastle’s back 10 up the pitch to create it.

Now, I’m not surprised we can’t just select that tactical approach from the toolbox. It’s not something we have really come up against much in the PL and, well, it may not work anyway, especially when the opponent has a lead to protect.

But I can’t help thinking that a way of pulling opponents out of their trenches so we can use pace in space behind them is a thing we needed to try later in last night’s game.

plot of chunk unnamed-chunk-6

team Newcastle Utd Sheffield Utd
xG 0.455 1.420
shots 6 13
onTarget 4 6
touches 446 883
deepC 17 34
touchesInBox 15 31
passes 285 758
passSucc 0.649 0.825
ppda 43.2 5.82
directness 0.693 0.390
avgLine 41.2 55.2
shots6 NA 1
shotsPen 3 9
shotsOutside 3 3

(* Military history reference. The Red Army was noted for defensive preparations that involved kilometre on kilometre of defensive lines made of trenches, anti-tank weapons, dug in infantry etc, such as at Kursk in 1943)








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