Explained: Newcastle’s tactical shift that ended St James’ Park wobble

Has there ever been a more vanilla and mild-mannered managerial disagreement?

“There’s no way Newcastle United let us have a lot of the ball,” claimed Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Gary O’Neil. “The reason for that was how good we were on the ball.”

A moderately perplexed Eddie Howe soon followed. “It was a slight tweak from our normal way,” Howe said. “To play a slightly more transitional game.”

Howe’s comments felt confirmatory for regular followers of Newcastle. This was a different setup, a deliberate alteration to sit deeper and catch Wolves on the counter, and one that delivered a much-needed 3-0 victory.

Without a win in four games on Tyneside, with 12 goals conceded, and without a clean sheet in nine top-flight matches (shipping 24 goals), Newcastle had been experiencing what Howe termed a “concerning first home wobble” under his management.

Following the 4-1 humbling at Arsenal, and the chaotic St James’ performances against Luton Town (4-4) and Bournemouth (2-2), Howe recognised style was secondary. The result represented everything.

Howe’s modification was not dependent on a change of personnel, but a change of strategy.

Usually at St James’, Newcastle have a greater share of possession. Against Wolves, Newcastle had just 44.6 per cent of the ball, their third-lowest figure at home this season — after Arsenal (40.9 per cent) and Manchester City (27.4 per cent) — and only the third occasion they have had less possession across 14 games.

During the first half, Newcastle only had 37.5 per cent possession.

Their biggest threat came from rapid attacks. For the opener, Fabian Schar intercepts inside his own area and then sends Anthony Gordon away.

IMG 1556

Gordon carries possession, Bruno Guimaraes overlaps and his shot is deflected by Craig Dawson for Alexander Isak to nod in. That was just Newcastle’s fourth goal at home from an Opta-defined ‘fast break’ this season.

Isak goal vs Wolves 2

Perhaps Wolves were better at retaining possession, but they were also aided in that regard. Newcastle intentionally afforded Wolves slow possession, sitting off and closing the gap between defence and midfield, and denying space in behind their full-backs.

Take a look at the grab below — as Wolves move from left to right, Newcastle’s midfielders and wingers are spread and retreating, rather than closing down. There is an obvious attempt to be compact and prevent Pedro Neto from getting one-on-one with Dan Burn.

Sitting off from a Wolves throw to try stop Neto getting isolated with Burn

Earlier, Newcastle similarly sat off Tommy Doyle, trying to restrict pockets for Wolves players to ghost into.

Letting Wolves have the ball on halfway staying in shape

When Newcastle did press, it was targeted. Usually, it was reserved for Wolves playing out from Jose Sa. At first, only Gordon presses below.

Targeted press 1

Then, as Wolves pass left, four Newcastle players close the space.

Targeted press 2

If they did not win possession, Newcastle players quickly retreated into formation.

Interestingly, Newcastle only won possession in the final third four times, their joint-fourth-lowest figure at home this season, with nine regains against Forest and seven against Luton.

Below is Newcastle’s link-up map to the 52nd minute, when Kieran Trippier went off injured. It shows the average position of players, with just four of Newcastle’s XI spending the majority of the match in Wolves’ half. The back four is almost flat, while Jacob Murphy and Sean Longstaff are deep.

newcastle wolves network 2024 03 02 2

This is atypical for Newcastle at home — contrast the above to the 3-1 defeat to Forest on Boxing Day, when Newcastle had 62 per cent possession:

newcastle nottm forest network 2023 12 26 1

Seven players, including all three midfielders, average positions beyond halfway. Trippier is higher, too, with the rest of the defence operating as a back three in possession, a tactic used more sparingly against Wolves.

Miguel Almiron was the most advanced player against Forest, whereas Murphy was picked as a right-winger against Wolves precisely so he could take up a deeper out-of-possession position and use his pace in transition.

Newcastle’s most glaring defensive frailties recently have been their susceptibility to counter-attacks — they had conceded an average of 4.5 ‘direct attacks’ per match since December 3 — and Burn’s vulnerability against a speedy right-winger when isolated, as well as long balls exploiting the space behind their defence.

The latter is shown below against Forest, when Murillo launches one pass above the pressing midfield and behind Newcastle’s back line.

Forest play through Newcastle press 1

The offside trap is mistimed, allowing Chris Wood to advance unopposed.

Forest play through Newcastle press 2

Against Luton, Newcastle’s midfield was caught trying to rush Albert Sambi Lokonga, who plays one pass beyond them to Carlton Morris.

Luton goal breaking through NUFC press 1

Schar rushes out and Morris feeds Ross Barkley, who runs 60 yards before eventually scoring.

Luton goal breaking through NUFC press 2

This is a by-product of Newcastle’s higher defensive line under Howe since the start of the 2022-23 season, the evolution of which is shown below. On average, Newcastle have caught opponents offside 28 metres from their goal this season, six metres higher than in the 2021-22 season.

Newcastle def line 1

Up to Christmas, Newcastle’s defensive record at home had been exemplary — they had conceded just four goals in nine games and their figure of six clean sheets in those matches was higher than any other top-flight side at home. Between September and December, their goal was breached only once at home across seven games.

Injuries to Nick Pope, more of an out-of-the-box sweeper-keeper than Martin Dubravka, Joelinton, the midfield duel winner, and the athletic Joe Willock saw the effectiveness of Howe’s preferred off-the-ball setup wane. Without that trio, Newcastle have lacked balance between attack and defence, and it is no coincidence Willock made such an impact during his first league start since November 11.

Against Wolves, Newcastle’s expected goals against (xGA) — a metric that measures the quality of chances conceded — was 0.69, the lowest since December 16 and the seventh-lowest this season. Across the last four home games, the average xGA has been 2.75. Against Forest, it was 3.45. The number of shots they faced (12) and shots on target faced (three) were also significantly down on that four-game average.

The success of this strategy was such that supporters are now pondering whether Howe will persist and why he did not change sooner.

“We analysed our opposition, like we always do,” Howe said. “A lot of people say we play the same every week, but that’s not the case.”

Without Willock’s energy, such a setup would have been difficult, while what works against Wolves is not necessarily going to be suited to every opponent.

Until Boxing Day, Newcastle were magnificent at St James’ playing Howe’s preferred front-foot, high-press style. As Newcastle search for elusive consistency, perhaps Howe is best served by continuing to tinker.

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