Changes Work For Newcastle

Jack Elderton –

I wanted to do a quick piece on the site (it’s been a while!) to explain some of the changes that happened in the second half of the Newcastle game and look at how a shift towards a more conservative defensive approach from David Moyes worked in tandem with a box-bombing Dan Burn to turn the game around for the Magpies.

In the first half of Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Newcastle, Moyes employed a hybrid pressing approach with the side working from a 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1 shape with Tomáš Souček included as a man-marking #10 to limit Bruno Guimarães’ influence on the game and stop Newcastle from being able to build through the centre of the pitch.

Whilst Souček remained man-to-man for much of the opening period of the match, the wingers – Jarrod Bowen and Lucas Paquetá – were focused on blocking the half-space zones and disallowing straight passes to either of Newcastle’s eights: Sean Longstaff and Sandro Tonali. This standard responsibility to block the most dangerous passing lanes was then augmented, as per usual, with a man-to-man focus on the opposition full-backs when they received in build-up.

In the above example, we can see how Bowen disconnects from his initial brief to block passes through the half-space to engage Burn whilst right-back Vladimír Coufal shoots up to close down the dropping winger looking to receive the only viable pass up the flank. This created several opportunities for high turnovers in the first half as both full-backs displayed the requisite aggression to support the trigger-versus-full-backs press set by the attackers.

It also, importantly, allowed Michail Antonio to close down Newcastle’s centre-backs and funnel the ball into the wide spaces where the team could force turnovers or reset Newcastle’s build-up. This approach worked perfectly in tandem with Newcastle’s general lethargy on the ball as the Magpies’ slow passing only amplified anxiety when Moyes’ team suddenly sprung into action to close the ball down.

Eddie Howe was quick to notice some of the limitations of Moyes’ approach though and it was only a few minutes into the game when Newcastle began to drop an additional midfielder back in build-up to transform the initial 4-1 shape into more of a 4-2 shape. This move to a double-pivot in build-up, with Longstaff helping Guimarães, distressed West Ham’s man-oriented approach at #10 as there would always be a free midfielder to pass to and advance play.

In this example, we can see that Bowen and Antonio have momentarily swapped over and there is a sense of confusion over who should be taking responsibility for the spare player in the double-pivot. Bowen holds before leaving to complete the expected press on the centre-back whilst Souček opts to stay with the more dangerous Guimarães… This leaves Longstaff free and Newcastle are able to play through far too easily.

Moyes/team were quick to resolve this though and the second half progressed fairly positively for West Ham once one of the sitting midfielders was given license to press forward onto the near-side (and free) double-pivot option for Newcastle. This shifted West Ham’s initial structure from a 4-2-3-1 to more of a situational 4-1-4-1 and we saw different examples where both James Ward-Prowse and Edson Álvarez would leave dependent on where the need for an additional man to combat build-up arose.

This allowed West Ham to continue to disrupt Newcastle’s build-up and stopped Eddie Howe’s team from scything through the middle of the pitch too easily and progressing to control the match more towards the Hammers’ defensive third.

But at the start of the second half, with West Ham leading 1-0, things changed. Moyes clearly wasn’t happy with the opportunities that Newcastle had to exploit the gaps in West Ham’s midfield as it transitioned between (4-)2-3(-1) and (4-)1-4(-1), and shifted the side to a more settled zonal 4-4-2 for the second period. This isn’t particularly surprising as this West Ham team have already shown a good level of competency in defending deep and hitting teams on the break/scoring from set-pieces to build (and defend) leads in games. But, on reflection, this was probably a misstep against Newcastle.

Where Howe’s team had been genuinely very poor in the first half, they were able to grow into the match in the second 45 with unimpeded build-up and much more opportunity to take control of the match higher up the pitch. This, in combination with the rocket they probably received at half-time, completely changed the numbers they were able to commit to attacks and allowed them to generate far more situations where they could overload West Ham’s backline.

Though perhaps the most interesting element of this was the player that was tasked with making those runs to create overloads: Dan Burn.

West Ham sitting in a deep 4-4-2 and able to match Newcastle’s frontline numerically.
Dan Burn surges forward from left-centre-back in build-up to left-striker forcing Coufal narrow and opening acres of space on the far-side for a switch.

This is interesting for two reasons:

  1. Nobody initially has responsibility for Burn so there is no cascading passing on as he advances which means someone has to decide to pick him up each time he makes this run. This opens space elsewhere.
  2. Dan Burn is a very large man. This very disruptive to a defence.

The example I’ve given above precedes Newcastle’s goals but is almost an exact replica (flipped) of the move they run for their second. Burn flies forward and pulls the defence narrow, this opens space on the far side for Kieran Trippier, Paquetá is too slow to notice this and Emerson doesn’t encourage his teammate to cover across, and the switch is played to a very dangerous receiver in advanced wide positions. Here is how that looked:

Although this was a good result for West Ham, a 2-2 draw against a side that blew PSG away in the UEFA Champions League is always going to look good, there are a few questions to ask over whether the game could have been approached differently – particularly in the second half. Could Moyes have bucked the usual trend of conservative defence of a lead and continued to disrupt Newcastle in the second period?

I think the key takeaway for me was more over the selection dilemma between Souček and Mohammed Kudus though. Souček scored in this game, and has started this season impressively, but there are some games that are going to suit the Ghanaian (a more natural and adept #10) a little better. This was probably one of those.

In 20 minutes, Kudus showed the positive impact that a natural half-turn receiver can have on the team and, whilst Souček might offer a little more security from a defensive point of view, Kudus’ ability to receive, spin, and drive might’ve added another dimension in attack that could have put the game beyond Newcastle in the first half. Is man-marking that complicated a job?

Kudus was excellent at picking out these gaps behind Newcastle’s midfielders and allowed for much greater verticality from the midfield to the attack. This brought the wide players into the game and made the team much more threatening as an attacking force.

We talked about this some more on the pod which you can listen to here:

This was fun. I missed writing. Hope you enjoyed, cheers!

Jack Elderton

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