Newcastle United: A counter-attacking side who simply don’t counter-attack

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A goal-fest on the banks of the Irish Sea just a few days ago pleased Steve Bruce as his Newcastle United side delivered an emphatic response to their awful 3-0 loss at home to Brighton. Just what he’ll need to pick him up after their draw with Tottenham Hotspur will surely be something special, given the manner of their performance.

In the past, some of the best minds when it comes to Newcastle United, such as Chris Waugh and George Caulkin of the Athletic, have described the Toon as a counter-attacking side. Given the fact Manchester City, Spurs themselves, Manchester United and Chelsea have all been beaten when the Magpies have conceded possession in the last three seasons or so, it can clearly be an effective tactic.

The issue with Newcastle right now isn’t the fact they are (in theory) a counter-attacking team. While it may not always be the most entertaining brand of football to watch, it’s kept them in the Premier League. After all, surely no fan inside St. James’ Park would have remained in their seats with folded arms after dramatic winners from Matty Longstaff, Isaac Hayden or Matt Ritchie (under a different regime no less) just because their side didn’t dominate possession.

Indeed, the main problem right now is that Newcastle simply don’t counter-attack well despite giving up so much possession. They had just 34.2% of the ball and the first time they got themselves into a promising position against Spurs, Jonjo Shelvey’s pass was intercepted when looking to set Callum Wilson away, allowing Spurs’ midfield to get between the lines and set-up Lucas Moura’s opener.

When writing about the strengths of a counter-attacking team in his piece on the Athletic back in December, tactics expert Michael Cox described how the Germany team of 2010 ‘sat back in their own half and waited for opportunities to break, rather than pressing in advanced positions’. Then, they would break with ‘tremendous speed and purpose, and the interplay between onrushing attackers was often spectacular.’

Applying that, even in theory, to this side would be a stretch. Clearly, the Germans had some wonderful talent in the likes of Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller but, if those are the basics of how to make that system a success, Newcastle are way off doing either.

None of their three goals this season have come from a counter-attack and they’ve not had a shot on target from open play in the last two games. In the entirety of the last campaign, only 0.1% of their goals came from one. Yesterday, their xG (expected goals) was just 0.94. Just like last week, there were no signs of attack (not a single counter against Brighton either), aside from a very late and very dramatic penalty. So, there appears to be none of the ‘purpose’ Cox writes about when describing an effective side playing this way.

Speaking on Sky Sports during their half-time analysis, former Spurs and England defender Michael Dawson stated how Newcastle ‘just sat off them’ and that they had just ‘defended the box and not defended it well enough’. In fact, as per Sofa Score, Tottenham created 4 big chances and missed three of them. Had it not been for Karl Darlow, Spurs may well have gone some way into matching their 3.19 xG. Certainly, it appears as if sitting back isn’t exactly keeping things tight aside from goalkeeping heroics.

Mark Douglas of the Chronicle pointed out it wasn’t clear as to what Newcastle were supposed to be doing. If counter-attacking is their go-to plan (as the lack of possession would suggest) they really aren’t playing to any sort of structure with that system in mind. Right now, they’re a counter-attacking team who don’t counter-attack.

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