Newcastle lacked a plan B against Crystal Palace – to become elite they must evolve

It is the 54th minute, and Emil Krafth kicks the ball forward, because that was the extent of Newcastle United’s problem solving on Wednesday night.

Jacob Murphy had endured a torrid evening at Selhurst Park, harried at every turn by Crystal Palace’s press. Here, his retreat leaves Krafth with little option. Rather than lose the ball in a dangerous area, he makes the pragmatic decision to get rid of it — and fast.

The decision merely delayed Newcastle’s fate. The ball came back at them as if trampolined off the Holmesdale Road stand, and via a slick one-two with Jordan Ayew, drawing Dan Burn and Fabian Schar out of position, Jean-Phillipe Mateta put Palace 1-0 up.

The goal summarised the game. Newcastle’s downfall in their eventual 2-0 loss was a failure to find a plan B.

Newcastle had been in a good run — three wins in their last four games, sixth in the table and primed for Europa League qualification. A 4-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur in their last outing was their best performance of 2024.

This form, however, papered over two underlying issues, both of which need to be solved before next season.

First, their away form is still poor. Aside from a hard-fought 1-0 win at Fulham, courtesy of Bruno Guimaraes’ 81st-minute winner, their three previous away results saw defeats at Chelsea and Manchester City, plus a fortunate win over Blackburn Rovers on penalties after a 0-0 draw. They have now lost eight of their last 11 Premier League away games — just five teams have won fewer away points.

Anthony Gordon struggled to get into the game (Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

Second, while they have been tactically versatile — such as switching to a 3-4-3 against Tottenham — this has generally been a result of Howe formulating a different Plan A, rather than working out solutions mid-game. Wednesday night was the perfect example.

Howe elected to retain the 3-4-3 formation he used against Tottenham, partly because it had worked so well that day, and also because of Tino Livramento’s ongoing fitness issues. According to Howe, the right-back was only fit enough to be brought on “in an emergency” due to an ankle issue.

Newcastle had not played in 10 days, and are usually good after a mini-break — before Wednesday, their record this season after an international or cup break was played five, won five — with an aggregate scoreline of 16-5. Palace, meanwhile, had played twice in that time.

Their manager Oliver Glasner admitted post-match that he was “surprised” that Newcastle had opted to retain their 3-4-3, but nonetheless, his side looked like the ones with a well-formulated plan. In theory, Newcastle’s formation gave them an overload in wide areas but any ball into Jacob Murphy triggered an immediate press, led by the outstanding Will Hughes in midfield.

After less than 10 minutes, the two collided with the sound of a big rig hitting a pinata. Hughes rose to his feet, victorious, the ball squirted to a quiet corner where it could lick its wounds. It was a pattern which repeated itself throughout the night.

Murphy has answered Newcastle’s call repeatedly, and it is worth stressing that he was at right wing-back out of necessity, rather than his own choice. Nevertheless, it is one of the few occasions in the last 18 months where he was found wanting.

Look at Newcastle’s pass map below — there was a lack of any sort of progression from the right-hand side. Instead, they lost the ball there repeatedly. The pitch map below shows how Palace (dark blue) dominated the flanks.

When Newcastle opted to play the ball straight into their midfield, Sean Longstaff struggled technically, and while there were flashes of press resistance from Elliot Anderson, Newcastle had no real stability in possession.

Towards the end of the first half, they had some success at playing the ball in early to the feet of Anthony Gordon and Harvey Barnes but the wingers were forced so deep to receive that they posed little danger. Look how deep Gordon’s starting position is above — he is meant to be their field-stretcher.

At half-time, Newcastle had an xG of just 0.01, from a ricocheted Schar header. Despite the system’s evident issues, Howe elected to retain it at the start of the second half and Newcastle’s lack of confidence in their right-sided build-up, exacerbated by the system, led directly to Palace’s opening goal.

It was only in the 64th minute, and chasing the game, that Howe made his changes. Callum Wilson came on for Barnes and Lewis Hall replaced Murphy — Newcastle settling into a 4-2-3-1 with Alexander Isak as the No 10. It had little effect. Over the 90 minutes, Newcastle mustered just two shots on target, their second-fewest of the season.

The next stage of Newcastle’s evolution is adaptation, especially away from home. For all the magic that Howe has woven with a depleted squad, through upskilling players, in-game changes are still one area where both he and Newcastle’s players can strengthen.

This summer, Newcastle will face a battle to keep Bruno Guimaraes, their most tactically instinctive player.

Speaking post-match, Howe was weary — and disagreed with the suggestion that tactics were behind the loss. He is an astute and calm performer in press conferences — who will always enter with a particular message he wants to impart, whether it is aimed at his players, the fanbase, or the media.

Eddie Howe was disconsolate after defeat at Palace (Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

“I think after the win against Tottenham, we were prepared to go the same way,” he said. “I thought tactically the game would suit us (and) I have no issue doing so. But our execution has to be better than that.”

Usually, he resists any criticism of his squad’s application. This time, when asked by The Athletic if he could explain the tactical thinking behind the second-half changes, Howe instead pointed to his players’ attitude.

“Yes, we made substitutions, we made tactical tweaks,” he replied. “But as always, when you talk tactically, it’s always about the attitude of the group, first and foremost.

“If you’re not quite where you need to be, for whatever reason — mentally — then it doesn’t matter what you do tactically. You’re going to fall down, and I felt that’s probably where we were today.”

Did Newcastle’s players suffer a psychological off-day, or were they frustrated by the way they were tactically stymied? When Murphy ran into Hughes for the umpteenth time, he resembled a shell-shocked soldier being sent back over the top.

The debate is whether Howe was right to ask him to do so.

(Top photo: John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *