At the weekend Newcastle United gave arguably their most convincing performance of an already wonderful season, a 3-1 victory away at West Bromwich Albion. This was in no small part to very clever tactics by Alan Pardew. This season he has generally stuck to 4-4-2, occasionally experimenting with 4-4-1-1 and 4-2-3-1 in attempts to accommodate Hatem Ben Arfa in his starting eleven. This was the first time they had played a more orthodox 4-3-3 though, and the signs were very positive. I’m going to analyse each area of the team, starting with the trio of attackers.
Papiss Cisse, Demba Ba and Hatem Ben Arfa all played from the start, with Ben Arfa on the right of Cisse, and Ba slightly to the left. The first point to make is that there are very few formations that could fit each of these 3 players in their preferred positions, but moving Ba into a wide left role was the best compromise in this case. Ba is in a minor goal drought, (with Cisse having taken the reigns,) but he is certainly no goal poacher, and has more than enough technical ability to play in a more reserved midfield/winger role.
Ba had a good game, despite not being directly involved in any of the three goals. He has excellent close control and is a decent dribbler, particularly for a player of his build and size. He has played with Ben Arfa several times for Newcastle, and Cisse on occasional when the two have been on international duty for Senegal, so the chemistry was clear to see. The best example was in their third goal, Ba played a clever flick to Ben Arfa, who picked out a dangerous ball for Cisse, who scored (Ba slipped in an attempt to reach the ball).
Cisse thrived in this system though, he is a natural “number 9” and one of the best finishers in the game at the moment. His goal record at struggling Freiburg speaks for itself, so he was always going to score with the likes of Ben Arfa and Cabaye in the supply line. For the first goal, he showed brilliant awareness and positioning to get on the end of a Ben Arfa low pass into the box, although both made it very easy for the other.
Ben Arfa has a wealth of experience in a wide right role in this formation as well, and he picked up the man of the match award after a scintillating display. This system and line up allowed Newcastle to break with pace, which they have never been able to do this season (before the weekend they had managed just one goal from a counter attack). They were a constant danger on Sunday though; Ba is no slouch but Cisse and Ben Arfa are lightning quick, and West Brom simply couldnt handle the fluidity and pace of the attack. This was summed up in the second goal, Ben Arfa, Cabaye and Cisse combining beautifully with one touch passing and moving to hit West Brom and leave themselves with a 3 v 2 on goal. Cisse layed the ball off for Ben Arfa, who was allowed onto his favoured left foot to finish calmly past Foster.
The midfield was more unorthodox though. Traditionally, a 4-3-3’s midfield will contain a ‘tackler’ to break up play, a ‘passer’ who will dictate the tempo of the game and an ‘attacker’, who will link up with the forwards. Newcastle named Danny Guthrie, Yohan Cabaye and Jonas Gutierrez in theirs, which is 2 ‘passers’ and one natural winger.
It’s fair to say that Guthrie is least industrious of the trio, so for the majority of the game he played central, and deep, and was given the role of dictating play, so he acted as the passer. This is reflected in the statistics, as he was the game’s second top passer, with 51 successful passes and an 86% success rate (via WhoScored).
As mentioned, Cabaye and Gutierrez cover a lot of ground (two of the highest in the league for distance covered per game), which helped Newcastle control the midfield, and allowed Ba and Ben Arfa a little less defensive responsibility. Cabaye was the more attacking minded, and was involved in counter attacks, while trying to play through balls to the stikers, so he acted as the ‘attacker’ of the trio. A notable positive was that he’s played the majority of his career at Lille in a similar formation, so he knew his duties. He didnt get a direct assist but played the role fairly well, and Newcastle did not miss the extra man they should have in midfield.
This left Gutierrez, as the ‘tackler’, in theory. As you’ll usually see him as a flamboyant winger, this appears an odd decision, but his work rate is outstanding and is one of the most defensive wingers in the league (if not most), so much so that he is able to play at full back as well. He did not break up play much, but was tied highest in the team for tackles and interceptions, including defenders. He was able to cover the full backs very well as well, as he is used to doing, which was important at the end when Davide Santon and Shane Ferguson were both caught upfield on the left and he got across to cover.
Finally, the defence. Newcastle chose to start Davide Santon on the bench, favouring James Perch at left back. Again, perhaps an odd call on the face of it, but Perch is far more defensively minded than Santon, which was important seeing as Demba Ba was not interesting in tracking back too much, and meant Perch was never caught upfield (as Santon often is). Perch is also in a good spell of form at the moment and the decision to keep him in the team will have upped his confidence, no doubt.
Fabricio Coloccini and Mike Williamson started in central defence, with Simpson wide on the right. In the first half there wasnt much to comment on the defence as they kept a clean sheet and werent overworked. Coloccini though, had to go off at half time due to injury, meaning Perch moved to centre back and Santon took his place at left back. West Brom began to pressure Newcastle more, but that was perhaps to be expected anyway, as the home side who will have no doubt been told to improve their second half performance by an angry Hodgson at half time.
West Brom’s goal came from a simple long ball, which Williamson failed to deal with and actually knocked it out of goalkeeper Tim Krul’s path. Krul was not blameless either though, a more vocal goalkeeper would have screamed instructions to him and Williamson’s gesture implied he had received no call. Coloccini’s presence may have changed things, he is quicker and calmer on the ball than Williamson, and the ball was played into the area he usually operates on (the left).
That aside though, Williamson had a decent game, making 2 good blocks, while Perch continued his good form and showed he is comfortable in 4 positions (defensive midfield, and anywhere across the back 4). Simpson had a quiet game, which is usually an indication that a defender has had a good game, and Santon’s positioning appeared to have improved, as he wasnt quite so keen to get forward.
Newcastle were outstanding, and with their injured players back in the side this formation could be a revelation for them, it’s versatile, quick and gets the best out of their best players.