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Tactics Talk: Newcastle commit set-piece suicide against Manchester United

Jonny Boyle

Newcastle United welcomed Manchester United to St James’ Park on Sunday in one of the most eagerly anticipated matches of the Premier League weekend. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side came off the back of a 3-2 defeat to Spurs last week, but feeling confident with the return of Wayne Rooney to the starting eleven. Alan Pardew knew his side were in for a tough game at home, but you wouldn’t have thought it after seeing their opening performance.

evra 300x225 Tactics Talk: Newcastle commit set piece suicide against Manchester United

Patrice Evra celebrates his goal

Line-up

The visit of Manchester United is always treated with trepidation, but Pardew’s starting line-up far from reflected this. Steve Harper continued to deputise for the injured Tim Krul with Davide Santon, Mike Williamson, James Perch and Shane Ferguson making up a depleted back four. Hatem Ben Arfa and Jonas Guttierez – two of Pardew’s mainstay midfielders – partnered the ever-present Yohan Cabaye and Cheick Tiote in midfield. Perhaps the most significant decision was to start with Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba up-front – two strikers who haven’t lost a single league game when starting together this season.

It’s been difficult for United to get in to any sort of tactical rhythm this season with injuries and inconsistent form forcing Alex Ferguson to rotate his starting eleven. However, with his best players fully fit, he went for an adventurous 4-1-2-1-1-1 in an attempt to include the best of his attacking arsenal. David De Gea began in goal with Rafael, Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans and Patrice Evra in front. Michael Carrick was the sitting midfielder joined by Shinji Kagawa and Tom Cleverley to his front right and left respectively. Wayne Rooney played at the top of the midfield diamond leaving Robin Van Persie to roam behind the frontman figure of Danny Welbeck.

First half Newcastle commit set-piece suicide

The new system appeared to work as both full-backs started off high up the park, Evans and Ferdinand pulled out wide and Michael Carrick dropped in to the centre of defence to build play. The first goal came from a Van Persie corner. Jonny Evans lost Mike Williamson with the simplest of runs before powering a header past Harper. In the same situation on the opposite side eight minutes later, Patrice Evra lost a lazy Hatem Ben Arfa before beating Demba Ba to a front-post Rooney corner. 2-0 after 15 minutes and Newcastle had just given the perfect example in how not to defend a set-piece.

A key component to United’s system was the narrow diamond of the midfield. Only Carrick stayed in the same position as he anchored the three playmakers in Cleverley, Kagawa and Rooney who were free to roam around the front two. Defensively, Rooney dropped back to make a flat four which Newcastle had to play through. Something they rarely did in the first 25 minutes of the game as Newcastle toiled with the shape.

Where Tiote played like a midfielder on a crusade to hurt opponents in the first 25, he soon realised that waiting for United to attack was the best form of defence. Newcastle began defending in a narrow line before gradually breaking up the play and keeping the ball. The 20 successful attacking third passes in the last 20 minutes of the first half was a marked improvement on the four in the first 25. Ben Arfa, Guttierez and Ferguson were key to that change in tempo, but they couldn’t do enough to change the 2-0 scoreline at half-time.

Second half Newcastle hit the wings, but can’t do enough

The only significant change at half-time was Alan Pardew’s decision to switch Ben Arfa to the left with Papiss Cisse dropping to the right and Guttierez moving inside. This gave Newcastle more defensive stability in midfield as they went man for man with the attacking three United midfielders.

It became apparent that the best chance for the home side to get back in to the game was via the wings. Newcastle attempted 38 crosses and given the frailty of Ferdinand and both full-backs in the air, as well as De Gea’s partiality to a flap, it was the right approach. However, it wasn’t Newcastle’s striker’s day and bar a De Gea flap leading to Ba hitting the bar then Cisse’s rebound being saved, they rarely threatened the away goal. If Newcastle want to win games, they can’t afford to have their two best strikers misfiring.

Pardew introduced Shola Ameobi and Vurnon Anita in an attempt to give Newcastle more potency between attack and midfield, but it ultimately failed after a fortunate third went in for United. Cleverley, after good work by Rooney, curled a cross towards Van Persie at the back post which sailed beyond both the striker and Harper as it nestled in the top left hand corner. 3-0 and game set and match for a Manchester United team with too much attacking quality for their opponents.

Ironic defeat shows United have more than one way to win

When Manchester United signed Kagawa and Van Persie much was made of how Ferguson would fit all his attacking players in to the one team, but they proved against Newcastle that they can play together and play well.

When Newcastle woke up from the early double whammy, they put up a fight using the wings to stretch United’s narrow midfield, but it wasn’t nearly enough to get a result.

Sir Alex summed up the ironic nature of the match “Strange thing is, although we were creating a lot of openings, we scored from two set-pieces which is unusual.” It might be a welcome surprise for Ferguson, but if Pardew had to lose the game then it won’t have been the way he wanted it to be lost.

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