When the highlight of an afternoon’s football is mocking 50,000 Geordies’ failure to understand the back pass rule, you know it has been pretty desperate fare.
A poor game, with two distinctly average teams, was settled by a scrappy, preventable goal saw Newcastle deservedly taking the points and likely survival. The home side were largely pedestrian but showed significantly more intent than their relegation rivals and really should have wrapped the game up by half time, only for their failure to convert chances at St James’ Park coming back to haunt them.
Town rarely threatened despite one or two promising situations until the final few minutes when their ultra caution was cast to the wind following Perez’s winner.
With the fragile plan of gaining a point and maybe sneaking a winner on the break in tatters, Wagner threw Mounié in to the mix and reverted to a 3-5-2 formation which, with the return of the impressive Kongolo, was surely a decent option from the start.
Depoitre battled well up front and was a constant thorn to the home side, but he can’t be in two places at once. In a game few expected to return 3 points, it is difficult to see the downside of an experimental formation – though Newcastle’s natural conservatism once in the lead was undoubtedly a factor, Town looked infinitely more adventurous in the new shape but it was far too little and undoubtedly too late.
Having survived the Toon’s first half assault, which featured at least two glaring misses, putting two up front would have been a brave move which may have unsettled the home side’s plans, though it should be said that the visitors improved in a second half where Newcastle were restricted to one decent chance. Unfortunately, they converted it.
A mess in the middle of the park finally allowed space for the home side to exploit and the stranglehold was fatally loosened. A cross should have been dealt with more assertively by Lössl (he had made a very good save in the first half to deny Ritchie) and his flap fell to the feet of Kenedy who found Perez to convert from close range.
Without a goal in four games now, the containment plan is completely over shadowing any attacking intent. Pritchard’s struggles, particularly away from home, continue but it is difficult to blame the diminutive number 10 when the ball is launched towards his head on so many occasions, though he did fail to provide much invention when allowed the opportunity.
So much of Town’s forward play ended with a poor pass or momentum stopping hesitation, and before the setback of Newcastle’s winner, they had one, wide, attempt on goal from the ever willing Depoitre. A promising, surprisingly incisive move in the first half freed Smith down the right but, predictably, he had few options to hit in the area and the moment passed.
The late change in formation provided a frustrating glimpse of what could be achieved with the impressive Kongolo in the team. His ability to recover – he made one fantastic challenge on the pacy Atsu to prevent danger – and his composure should allow Wagner flexibility which he could utilise without it being a reaction to adversity. Both Schindler and Zanka, after a nervous first 20 minutes, were solid and impressive – with a back 3 composed of our better personnel, a hard working 5 in the middle and the combination of Depoitre’s and Mounié’s contrasting qualities, Wagner’s in game options multiply.
Brighton offers another opportunity to try something different. It is another game with, realistically, a low percentage chance of points ahead of 2 home games which, along with the ineptitude of Southampton and Stoke, are likely to be the rope we will hopefully be grasping for survival.
The desperation formation created more opportunities in the final ten minutes than in the preceding 80 combined – while game circumstances contributed to this, it looked significantly more dynamic than the stifling strategy and caused Newcastle problems. Zanka and Malone had chances and only a fortunate defensive deflection prevented the ball finding Quaner at the far post as time ran out.
Through no fault of their own, one or two players are clearly out of their depth in this league – it isn’t a surprise, just a fact – but the rigidity of the current tactics and formation are exposing them more than necessary, while at the same time the better players are subdued.
Given a run of one point and no goals from 4 games, being outside the bottom 3 is a huge bonus, but we desperately need to show some bravery rather than relying on others. The final 10 minutes gave a glimpse of what could be.