Neil Warnock once remarked that fans only remember the second half of games, no matter how well you perform in the first and no appreciation of a more than competent display against a seemingly cowed Newcastle United up to half time can whitewash the shambles which lead to a damaging and ugly defeat after the break.
The sluggish, isolated play of Depoitre (in both halves) will be the focus of much ire, but we have all seen this play many times before.
It bears repeating that Wagner has a game plan which relies almost entirely on getting the first goal and strangling the opposition thereafter. Going behind creates disruption which is rarely overcome as the principles upon which he builds his philosophy disintegrate in to barely coherent alternative plans, be it the throwing on of 2 identical strikers (when available), introducing a centre half to the final third or switching emphasis to a winger or two when wing backs have failed.
Despite often playing much better, and more attractively, than last season – we are more expansive and braver – the margins remain the same and the inability to cope with the setback of concession as toxic as ever.
Until Newcastle produced a move of some quality completely outside of their previous efforts, Town controlled the contest with some ease, all be it without creating genuine chances in the box (though a fit, confident centre forward would have made more of one or two excellent crosses), and it is baffling to see the panic button pressed so early and so unimaginatively.
The final 25 minutes, the ones which will live longer in the memory than the competence of the first 50, were a depressing mess of static confusion, pointless lumping and witless possession which allowed the Geordies’ central defence as comfortable a second half as afforded to Brighton’s in the last home game.
The lack of pace and guile sent the home crowd in to bewildered depression – they instinctively understood that going behind meant defeat, and at no point following the concession did the team on the pitch lift their spirits or provide hope on a dismal day of freezing rain and dawning reality. Sometimes the onus is on the team to lift the crowd, and this was one of those times – it cannot all be one way and they cannot expect blind devotion.
As ever, the effort couldn’t be faulted. Lauren’s closing down and overall exertions did not point to laziness, far from it, Hadergjonaj’s constant availability on the right demanded effort and commitment and the desperate search for a goal didn’t lack endeavour. It just wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough.
Too many players were decent in the comfortable midfield areas where Newcastle conceded space and possession – a literal comfort zone – but woeful in the most important area of the pitch, and open play goals look increasingly beyond a team which simply can’t get enough bodies in the box to support an already beleaguered centre forward (either of them). While Depoitre’s instincts appear to have deserted him – Mounié is a slightly different case – he was always outnumbered, largely dominated and expected to anticipate space which simply wasn’t available for much of the game.
As is often the case, Town started brightly and dominated the Magpies in an uneven midfield battle they won comprehensively. Hogg’s tackling and anticipation, Billing’s purposeful strides forward and total overshadowing of Diamé and Bacuna’s raw but competent prompting created enough pressure to win several matches until the paralysis in or around the area.
Despite overwhelming possession, and not all of it was voluntarily conceded, only a blistering free kick by Billing, very well saved by Dubravka, and a decent but slightly misfit effort by Löwe threatened the visitors’ goal. Hadergjonaj put in some good crosses but with only Depoitre in attendance, the Swiss had to be unerringly accurate for any profit to ensue.
The increasing reliance on set pieces – which had diminished somewhat in recent games – came back with a vengeance, however, and there is something vaguely depressing, and revelatory, in the sheer quantity of unproductive Billing long throws. It seems to be an acceptance that the team isn’t good enough to prosper from less blunt strategies. This may be admirable self awareness, but seems completely alien to Wagner’s usual approach. Let’s ditch it. Please.
Still, by half time, the general consensus was that Town had played pretty well, Billing had shone in a game short on quality and Bacuna had acquitted himself well on full debut. The lack of goals and chances was taken as a given but not, at this point, seen as disastrous.
All of this changed, along with the mood, when a lightning break by Newcastle split Town apart down the right. Escaping the press with a long, rather hopeful, ball forward from deep, the visitors turned a hopeful situation in to a deadly one with sharp passing and movement which opened up space for Rondon – anonymous up to this point – to steer in past the exposed Lössl.
Newcastle had started the second half more effectively, it should be said, and Town hadn’t regained their superiority of the first, but the response to the goal was panic, confusion and ill judged substitutions – not for the first time.
The lead emboldened the visitors’ containment game plan, allowing them to concentrate on defending their goal and spring counter attacks, one of which resulted in an incorrect call from a linesman before Pérez could finish (Benitez’s claim that a second goal had been disallowed was a little ingenuous – Lössl had stopped playing when he saw the flag), and Town’s dilemmas were increased.
With time slipping by, Town’s chances receded exponentially – Pritchard’s cleverness disappeared in the congestion, Newcastle’s defensive wall solidified and still there were too few bodies in the box to meet increasingly desperate crossing.
A decent ball in to Depoitre floundered on the Belgian’s lack of mobility, a defender’s head routinely cut out increasingly desperate crosses, corners and, sigh, Billing bombs and Pritchard fired wildly over when finding rare space.
Sobhi and Mbenza came in to the fray and provided little discernible difference, while Durm’s introduction seemed to be an admission that Löwe’s weird floating role experiment had served only to confuse.
Supporters’ confidence that a point saving goal was a possibility could be assessed by the number heading for the exits and horrible weather; they had definitely seen this play before.
On their lips will have been talk of a new striker in January, but if the problem had such a simple solution, would it not have been addressed before now? Maybe it was a failing of summer recruitment but it is difficult to see how a purchase will automatically solve the tactical malaises up front which have been evident since Wagner arrived.
The first is the stagnation which afflicts the team once the goal is in sight, the second is the lack of support usually provided to the poor sod in the 9 position and the third is the personnel in the shirt (though there has to be some hope for Mounié if not Lauren).
Perhaps a new attacking coach, who can join up the excellent strategies in the other bits of the field with the important bit at the other end, could help? Whatever the solution, without one our life in the Premier League will end in May.