It was a season of two halves on Tyneside. In the early stages of 2021, the club lingered just three points above the drop zone and frustrations were swirling around the fanbase. But, tactical shifts and shrewd January signings saw Steve Bruce oversee a solid finish to the campaign and a 12th place finish. A repeat of that will be the aim in 2021/22.
The football in the first half of the campaign was defensively reactive and blunt in attack. Things were objectively below-par at both ends of the pitch: Newcastle were consistently being out-created by their opponents and coming out on the wrong side of games.
Tactically, they consistently started with either a 4-4-2 or dropped into a more reactive 3-5-2/3-4-3 (defaulting to 5 at the back when they are without the ball). Within that, it’s hard to define the football that Steve Bruce’s team were trying to play. In possession, Newcastle completed the 2nd-fewest passes within 20 metres of goal (2.7), completed just 1.5 passes inside the opponent's box (both metrics per 90 minutes), and 37% of their passes into the penalty area came from wide crosses.
This matches the eye test. When playing a back four, the central midfield pairing (usually two of Jonjo Shelvey, Isaac Hayden, or Jeff Hendrick) were outnumbered 3v2 against the majority of teams in the league, who mostly opt for three-man midfields (if you care about this sort of thing, 4-2-3-1 was the leading shape of choice in the Premier League last season). This lead to plenty of hopeful punts up the pitch into the channels for the centre forwards to chase and, with the back three often a back five, there was rarely much width offered by the wing backs; consequently they were unable to play much of a role in build-up play.
Out of possession, Newcastle had the lowest PPDA in the league with 13.8; applied just 37% of their pressures in the opposition half; and conceded 15 shots per game. Essentially, Newcastle sat deep and looked to bend but not break to the opposition pressure. Regardless of formation, they sat very narrow and flooded the centre of the pitch to negate the opponent’s ability to play through them. Fine if you’re able to keep your rivals at arms length, but it presented issues in the attacking end with all their creativity parked behind the ball and in areas that made it difficult for them to perform. Looking at their On-Ball Value numbers - our new possession value model that rates every action performed on the pitch by how much it positively impacts the team’s likelihood of scoring in that possession - we can see that their biggest contributors were Matt Ritchie, who played wing-back, Ryan Fraser who was rarely on the pitch, and Jacob Murphy who played wing-back.
|Player||OBV per 90|
In Newcastle’s style of play, their attackers had much more ground to cover in order to get to the final third and create danger on the ball. This isn’t necessarily an issue in itself - counter-attacking teams can thrive in the Premier League - but the approach requires a centre forward who can provide an outlet. Callum Wilson or Joelinton were often positioned so deep that the team simply couldn’t get a foothold in the opposition half when they regained the ball. This only allowed the pressure to build on their defence to keep repelling the swathe of opposition attacks. Raw possession numbers always require context, and with this information the 38% of the ball possession they had in 2020/21 makes a lot of sense.
The Springtime Bounce
A run of W2-D0-L8 at the start of 2021 was Newcastle’s worst spell of the season, but it was then followed by their best. From the start of February to the end of the season, Newcastle picked up 20 points, winning five of their last eight to power them up the league table. The team switched shape to either a 4-4-2 diamond or a 4-3-3 and were comparatively more front-footed than earlier in the season. The change seemed to coincide with the arrival of first-team coach Graeme Jones, who you may recognise as a member of Gareth Southgate’s coaching staff during the EURO 2020 tournament this summer.
The changes provided Callum Wilson with support up front and allowed Miguel Almirón to have more of an influence on the game, getting on the ball in more central areas. More importantly, it allowed their wide players to thrive and be more direct. Allan Saint-Maximin returned from injury to finish the season up front, alongside Wilson but allowed to roam across the front and dribble or carry the ball over distance. This is apparent when comparing the plots of his carries: in Newcastle’s more reactive system he’d start his carries around the halfway line, thus with more players to beat and more distance to cover. After the system change, he started receiving possession in the channels in the opposition half and was isolating 1v1 vs his defender more often than previously. This is a beneficial situation for any player to work with, let alone an exciting wide player like Saint-Maximin.
Besides tactical changes, the January loan signing of Joe Willock proved to be one of the most successful signings of the window across the entire league. Willock was simply a goalscoring machine, equalling a club record number of consecutive games scored in with some bloke named Alan Shearer. Outside of his hot streak in front of goal (and it was a hot streak – 8 goals from 3.5 xG), Willock’s ability to contribute on both sides of the ball fit perfectly in line with the tactical changes Bruce and Jones implemented. Willock was proactive and industrious without the ball and provided a threat making late runs into the opponent’s box.
In making these changes, Newcastle’s metrics improved drastically towards the end of the season, taking more shots and creating chances of better quality. Though still anemic in some areas, moving their struggling attack from one of the league’s worst up into the middle ground of the league goes a long way to powering a push up the table and separating from the bottom of the pack.
How Do Newcastle Recreate The Late Surge This Season?
If Newcastle want to maintain the improvement we saw late in the season, how do they go about doing this? The primary point is to lean into the style of play that steadied the ship at the end of the season that saw them gain 20 of their 45 points from February 27th onwards. If they can sustain the improved attacking numbers over a whole season while keeping things relatively tight at the back, then it’s incredibly unlikely they’ll struggle as much as they did in the first half of last season.
|Shots (all units per 90)||11.5 (14th)|
|xG Conceded||1.33 (11th)|
|1 v 1 Shots||2.0 (9th)|
|Shot Distance||16.3 metres (8th)|
It was mostly their attacking metrics that improved. While they became more proactive without the ball than they had been previously, they still ranked as one of the lowest-block teams in the league. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; there are plenty of examples of teams (Wolves in 2019/20 for one) who have played counter-attacking football to great success. However, going on last season, it’s not clear that Newcastle have the capabilities to do that: allowing the opposition to monopolise the ball under little duress moves defenders deeper… and then you have the same issues we saw from August to January. Newcastle need to find ways to better taper off their periods of high pressure with lower block defending.
No season preview would be complete without a transfer section, but there’s little action to speak of so far, only bringing in a couple of younger players on free transfers who’ll likely become part of their development squad. Looking at the squad they have now, their average age is only slightly above the league average, but a considerable volume of minutes are being contributed by players above the “peak” age bracket.
The most exciting rumour is that of the permanent signing of Joe Willock, who had such a transformative effect on the Newcastle midfield, as we detailed earlier. His addition would be a major plus. Up front they still look short behind Wilson, with Joelinton struggling to make an impact and Dwight Gayle never quite managing to contribute in the top flight, which is a concern given there doesn’t appear to be many goals in other areas of the side. Some will point to Willock’s goalscoring streak but we shouldn’t expect that rate to continue, converting his eight goals from just 3.5 xG. They’ll need others to step up alongside Willock: with an attack that looks underpowered, they should be looking for goals by committee rather than relying on one or two individuals.
Where Do They Stand?
Fan discontent has been a common theme among Newcastle supporters for a number of years now, and last season as a whole won’t have served as much encouragement despite the stronger finish. All of this makes benchmarking them pretty tough. Are there likely to be at least three worse teams than them in the league? I believe so. But they still have some way to go to become more than the sum of their parts, and continuing to build upon the foundations laid at the back-end of last season should be the ambition. It’s a tough ask for them to improve beyond that without much investment in the squad.
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