Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Rafa Benítez may be right when he says that “everything is wrong” off the pitch at St James’s Park. On it, however, the Spaniard continues to work wonders. Newcastle United coped with Mauricio Pochettino’s counterpress better than most sides will this season. Foiled twice by the woodwork, the Magpies were ultimately unlucky to emerge empty-handed.
Last year’s largely unsuccessful dalliance with a back-three aside, Pochettino rarely deviates from a 4-2-3-1 system. But, with Victor Wanyama still crocked and Mousa Dembélé still in World Cup wind-down mode, the Argentinian was forced to think outside the box.
A prematurely festive 4-3-2-1 resulted, with Eric Dier flanked by Moussa Sissoko and Dele Alli. Lucas Moura and Christian Eriksen filled the number-10 roles, just off the still-out-of-sorts Harry Kane.
Such a narrow system risked playing into Benítez’s low-blocking hands. So, rather than rely only on the full-backs to provide width, Pochettino instructed both Alli and Sissoko to play wider. Dier, therefore, was isolated and forced to cover a lot of ground at turnovers.
Not a problem, of course, if Tottenham’s counterpress was at its best. But, in truth, it was a mixed bag here. As soon as the ball was lost, Spurs did press vigorously in the Newcastle half. And, on occasion, the likes of Mo Diamé were frazzled into coughing up shooting opportunities. But none of Pochettino’s front-three looked quite up to such a demanding task; particularly Eriksen who won only one of his five attempted tackles.
At any rate, Benítez had two potent weapons to wield against the Spurs squeeze, both of which he was happy to brandish. As a last resort, Newcastle bypassed the press by going long to lone striker Joselu, who won an impressive 78% of his aerial duels. Their first preference, however, was to weather the pressure and get the likes of Kenedy running at Tottenham’s exposed defenders. And, more often than not, the Magpies managed to do just that; completing 19 dribbles to Spurs’s seven.
Dier, swamped by breaking opponents, was fortunate to escape a second yellow card. With both Ayoze Perez and Kenedy keen to apply the afterburners, arresting them illegally at source was often the only option. Tottenham, tactical foulers par excellence, completed eight of their 12 fouls in the Newcastle half.
Secured on loan from Chelsea for another season, Kenedy was a revelation here. The Brazilian topped the dribbling charts and drew five fouls, relieving pressure on his side’s overworked rearguard. Unfortunately, he also wasted Newcastle’s biggest chance of restoring parity in the second-half, too. Joselu capitalised on a poor Aurier header to thread a through ball, but Kenedy’s first touch let him down.
That was one of five through balls Newcastle attempted here, to Tottenham’s zero. No other statistic better illustrates the contrast between the two defensive structures: one loose, the other ultra-compact at all times. What a shame, then, that one of Newcastle’s biggest 2017/18 strengths suddenly became a fatal weakness.
Newcastle only conceded four goals from set-pieces last season, second only to champions Manchester City in their parsimony. But Jonjo Shelvey’s loose rein on Davinson Sanchez allowed the centre-back to thrice get on the end of dead-balls. One effort went in via Jan Vertonghen’s toe and the other two weren’t far away either.
Spurs had defensive woes of their own, however. Both Perez and Ciaran Clark went close from half-cleared dead-balls. And Pochettino’s wingerless system was always vulnerable to overloads in wide areas, too. No surprise then that Newcastle converted their first sustained period of possession into Joselu’s equaliser. Dele Alli was caught cold by a switch-of-play from left to right, allowing DeAndre Yedlin to tee up Matt Ritchie’s back-post cross. Ben Davies failed to show Ritchie onto his weaker right foot, and Aurier was guilty of undercovering.
Alli was always bound to make amends, however. Both he and Sissoko caused havoc with late runs, untracked by Newcastle’s outmanned midfield pairing. As early as the second minute, Sissoko tempted Ciaran Clark into a rash challenge at the byline. And the tireless Frenchman should have scored in the second-half too, when he arrived late to blast a Davies cross at the excellent Martin Dubravka.
But it was Alli, magnetically attracted to the back-post as always, who exacted the fatal blow. The 22-year-old ghosted past a sleeping Yedlin to head home an Aurier cross. And he went on to waste two further chances from eerily similar situations. Benítez spent large chunks of the transfer window crying out for a left-back, and it’s true that Paul Dummett is generally the weak link in this Newcastle side. But for all his pace and energy, Yedlin is not a defender.
All the more amazing then that the Spaniard guided this squad to a 10th-placed finish last season. And an 81st-minute switch to 4-4-2 should have earned his overachievers a point here, too. Tottenham had unwisely dropped their defensive line by that point, allowing Shelvey’s distributional talents to shine. And when the ex-Liverpool playmaker found substitute Salomon Rondon with a pinpoint through pass, neither Sanchez nor Vertonghen had yet adjusted to Yoshinori Muto’s arrival. Davies was slow to cover, but Vertonghen recovered to deflect Rondon’s resultant effort off the bar.
The fact that Diamé had earlier rattled the woodwork too should underline exactly how ill-starred Newcastle were here. With two inadequate full-backs and the usual tumult behind the scenes, Benítez engineered yet another punching performance that belied his side’s collective weight. With less than 12 months remaining on the Spaniard’s contract, Mike Ashley would be mad not to do whatever it takes to keep him.
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