Story of a Match – Newcastle
Some matches are very easy to analyse. This was one of them.
After being taught a lesson at the Etihad last week, Lambert made a few changes and send out a team that featured 9 of last years promoted 11. Only Naughton and Morison (both playing Championship football) were new additions to the side, and both had outstanding games, but the familiarity shown between the players who were playing the system that brought us to the top division was key in what was a generally excellent performance. The diamond midfield has been sparingly used so far this season, but when he have used it, we’ve looked pretty good. Today was the same. The reintroduction of Fox and Hoolahan from the bench was key to making it work with Norwich dominating possession in the middle of the park, taking advantage of an injury hit Newcastle team without its first choice centre backs or Cheik Tiote to protect them.
The passing heatmap above shows where the ball was played from, and you can see it clusters around central midfield and then out wide, high up the pitch. This was a key, clear tactic. With Newcastle not offering too much threat down their wings, Naughton and Tierney were influential, getting forward on the overlap and putting in numerous crosses or throughballs. Norwich didn’t try to play the ball through the defence too much, instead relying on crosses to Holt and Morison to unsettle their generally crap centreback pairing of Perch and Simpson (two right backs by trade).
Key to this was Fox. As a paid up member of the David Fox Fan Club, he was hugely important today, attempting and completing more passes than anyone else on the pitch. As you can see from the chalkboard above, he was excellent at taking balls from the centrebacks and relieving pressure, and getting the ball forward and out wide. He brought others into play and got the ball into dangerous areas frequently. Paired with the excellent Crofts, he was able to stamp authority on the midfield that underpinned the performance. Surman and Hoolahan were also excellent in supporting this doing well to win the ball and unsettle the Toon midfield.
It was obvious from the outset that Lambert had set the team up to take advantage of their makeshift defence, but having Holt and Morison on the pitch had other effects too. As well as being on the end of crosses and bullying defenders, they were able to receive goal kicks and long passes from Ruddy with much greater regularity. Above you can see a comparison of Ruddy’s passing from today with that from the Blackburn game, when we had just Morison up front. As you can see from the completed blue lines, he was able to hit his target with so many more balls today, because the added option was there and was better than his centreback at getting the ball. This meant the midfield was able to get on the ball quickly, start to build attacks and move forward. Goalkeeper distribution can be crucial in keeping possession but that’s usually when they play it short, as we did all the time last season. It’s a mark of how much better Holt and Morison were than their centre backs that they were able to have this kind of impact.
Morison in particular had an excellent game and has shown throughout the season his ability to get on the end of long, hopeful passes. Norwich have become a touch more direct this season and Morison has been forced to plough a lonely field up front, getting on the end of long balls and trying to turn them into something. Today was the same, as he received the ball time and time again…
Above you can see all the balls that were played into Morison, and you can see how many of them were long, and how many were successful. Naughton in particular had great success in getting the ball forward to him and he was able to put the Newcastle defence under pressure, as well as bring teammates into play. This is classic number 9 play and he’s done it very well throughout the season.
With the tactic being based around two strong, tall strikers to go up against out of position defenders, many would think (or expect) wingers such as Bennett or Pilkington to play in a flat 4-4-2 to provide crosses. Yet even without these wide men Norwich were able to put in cross after cross through overlapping full backs, free kicks and corners. And so our goals came. The first, from a corner and a Crofts’ header. The second from a short corner. The third from a cross from the right. The fourth from a freekick to the left. Make no mistake, the tactics from Lambert were absolutely spot on, which has made this review so easy to write. Everyone could see how he was going to approach the game and it worked. It’s a credit to the players on the pitch for carrying out his orders and for playing so well. Make no mistake, this was no Stoke-esque performance. We attempted and completed more passes than Newcastle, we dominated the midfield and we weren’t the ones reduced to 10 men through a reckless, cynical challenge. It was the right team for the right game, and resulted in one of the most entertaining matches of the season. Less so for Newcastle fans, I guess.
As an aside on their goals, both came from sloppy, crap play. For the first, Zak lost his man and Ruddy was statuesque when the ball was played over. I’m not calling it a Ruddy mistake, but I’m saying a better keeper would have seen the ball coming through. For the second, Zak just dithered too much on the ball and got punished. As ever, we’re talking about self inflicted wounds. It’s nice that they haven’t resulted in us losing points though.