After their latest humiliation, a 3-0 pummelling at Goodison Park, Newcastle United welcome West Bromwich Albion to St James’ Park this Saturday, knowing that anything other than a win will leave them standing on the precipice of a disastrous drop to the Championship less than 12 months on from Jonas Gutierrez’ Survival Sunday heroics.
With 14 games remaining, the time for ‘good performances, ‘great attitude’ and ‘real character’ are over, and troubled head coach Steve McClaren could well be handed his P45 if his faltering side fail to produce the goods in a relegation six-pointer that will go a long way in deciding whether the Magpies have any feasible chance of evading the drop.
The 54-year-old has spent over £80million since succeeding John Carver in the Toon hot-seat last summer and, despite his concerted attempts to construe that significant progress has been made, the league table doesn’t lie – Newcastle are in dire straits.
There have been too many capitulations, too many false dawns, and distinctly average displays have too often been lauded as though they were comprehensive victories by a manager who is all too happy to bury his head in the sand whilst his side sleepwalk towards relegation without even acknowledging the severity of their plight.
Never have I seen a coach celebrate mediocrity with such unbridled joy as McClaren. Newcastle haven’t been out of the bottom six all season but, from his interviews, you’d think that his side were on the verge of a European place.
Effort, fight and application should go with the territory when you’re a professional footballer, these traits are not something a head coach should be purring over week after week as defeats rack up and games run out.
if the Magpies’ churn out another performance that is remotely similar to the Everton debacle against West Brom on Saturday, the growing angst of chairman Mike Ashley – whose £30million January splurge was indicative of a burning desire to grab a slice of next seasons record-breaking TV deal – could lead to McClaren’s dismissal ahead of next weekend’s daunting trip to Stamford Bridge.
Tony Pulis’ unimaginative, prosaic and pragmatic style of play has earned him few plaudits amongst an increasingly agitated Hawthorns’ crowd, but Baggies’ fans can have few real complaints. The 58-year-old was brought in as a firefighter and he has certainly quelled the flames whilst adding a sense of stability to a side that were on collision course for relegation prior to his appointment last January.
West Brom will arrive on Tyneside in 14th place, eight points ahead of Newcastle, and with just one defeat in their last nine games.
You know what you’re going to get with Pulis. He sets out to make his sides compact, well-drilled and difficult to beat. Is it great to watch? No. Is he a progressive manager capable of taking a side to the next level? Possibly not. But, if Pulis were to walk away from the West Brom job tomorrow, the club would be in a much stronger position than when he arrived – the same can be said of his previous stints at Stoke City and Crystal Palace
When you’re in desperate need of three points, a home fixture against run-of-the-mill opposition such as West Brom can look like the perfect remedy on paper, but, if fans think that Pulis’ side are going to do them any favours, they are sadly mistaken.
A draw for West Brom keeps the gap between themselves and Newcastle at eight points and edges them ever-closer to the magic 40 point mark. They have no need to go for the jugular, and they won’t.
The Baggies will set out to quieten and frustrate the St James’ Park faithful by sitting in front of Ben Foster’s goal with two immoveable banks of four, cutting out passing lanes, winning their individual duels and looking to nick a goal from set-pieces.
Newcastle’s most effective football of the season has come on the counter-attack, with the speed of Moussa Sissoko and the slick finishing of Georginio Wijnaldum and Ayoze Perez’ earning all five of their Premier League victories to date. However, on Saturday the Magpies will be tasked with taking the initiative to a West Brom side that will be more than happy to sit deep and absorb pressure.
Long balls are bread and butter for their towering back four, their disciplined and compact structure will counteract Wijnaldum’s attempts to get between the lines, and in Darren Fletcher they have a willing midfield schemer who will not grant Jonjo Shelvey a fraction of the time and space he needs to dictate games from the middle of the park.
If Newcastle are to beat the Baggies, they must change their approach.
Wyscout statistics from Wednesday evening mapped Newcastle players’ average positions in the 3-0 defeat against Everton, and it certainly makes for grim viewing – the left side of the pitch was virtually unoccupied for the entirety of the 90 minutes.
The Magpies’ effectively restricted themselves to playing in two-thirds of the pitch, making it all too easy for the Toffees to press the ball, regain possession and embark on attacks of their own.
When Andros Townsend’s signing was confirmed, McClaren spoke of the balance the £12million man could add to Newcastle’s play, hinting that the nimble Spurs’ winger would hug the touchline on the left-hand side, allowing his side to stretch the game, with Sissoko doing the same on the opposite side of the field.
If this was the plan on Wednesday night, then it clearly failed spectacularly.
Against a dense West Brom team, Townsend MUST offer width and stick to the left-hand side, condensing the game by moving infield completely negates the purpose of his inclusion in the side and only adds to Newcastle’s ample problems.
Another area where the Tynesiders could potentially cause damage to West Brom is from shooting positions outside the area. In the Premier League this season, the Baggies have conceded 161 goal attempts from outside the box, a total only surpassed by Alan Pardew’s Crystal Palace side.
Against Everton, Joel Robles needn’t have washed his neon green goalkeeping kit after the game, there wasn’t a single speck of mud on it. The Toffees’ No. 2 was a spectator for 90 minutes, as Newcastle failed to force him into a single save of note.
This has to change at the weekend. With West Brom’s height advantage making crosses an unlikely route to goal, and their deep defending giving few opportunities to get in behind, Newcastle must capitalise on any shooting opportunities they are granted around the area.
Ayoze Perez’ curling 25-yard strike to open the scoring against West Ham last month was Newcastle’s first long range goal in quite some time, but, with Jonjo Shelvey and Andros Townsend now amongst their ranks, the Magpies possess two players who are more than capable of producing rasping strikes from all areas of the pitch, and they should encourage the pair to threaten Ben Foster’s goal.
During his time at Spurs, Townsend averaged a shot on goal every 30 minutes and, although the White Hart Lane crowd berated his propensity to shoot on sight, McClaren should encourage the winger – who has three goals in ten appearances for England – to let fly.
If Newcastle are to stave off the threat of relegation for a second consecutive season, they HAVE to pick up a win this weekend, there’s no two ways about it.
Sides around them are picking up results and, with an 18 day break following next weekend’s trip to Chelsea, anything less than three points from their next two games means the Magpies’ could conceivably be cut adrift in the bottom three by the time they take to the field against Stoke City on March 2nd.
Mike Ashley held up his end of the bargain by loosening his purse-strings, now it’s time for Steve McClaren to hold up his and deliver some victories.
Over to you lads, no pressure.
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