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Newcastle United: The defensive kings of the Premier League

Regardless of the vast investment into the side over the previous two transfer windows, even the most optimistic of Newcastle United fan couldn’t have anticipated the sensational 22/23 campaign the team has had. Following their 0-0 draw at home to Leicester City, the Magpies have qualified for next season’s Champions League – returning after more than 20 years away from Europe’s elite club competition.

What has stood out most in Eddie Howe’s team has been their formidable defence. At the end of the 37th Matchday in the league, the side had conceded the 2nd-least goals in the whole league and had registered an impressive 14 clean sheets.

As a result, at the MBP School of Coaches, we set out to analyse the defensive phase of Newcastle, highlighting their main principles of play, as well as examining the game fundamentals that they execute the most efficiently.

Tactical Analysis

Creating turnover opportunities

The extra training time enjoyed by Newcastle due to their lack of European football commitments is shown in their high levels of organisation through the different moments of the game in the defensive phase. This is evident when in a high-block where Newcastle aim to ‘force the opponent into disadvantageous situations to create turnover opportunities’.

Structured in a 4-3-3, Newcastle aim to reduce the on-ball player’s options. In the zone of intervention, the central striker will cover the pass between both opposition centre backs while the midfield line step up to man-mark all other passing options nearby. The nearest winger to the ball has the most critical role, as they aim to pressure from ‘out-to-in’, leaving the on-ball player with limited options to play short.

The Magpies main focus is to provoke the opposition to play long in these scenarios. The reduction of nearby options as well as the intensity in their pressing on the ball often forces the on-ball opponent to rush aerial balls which result in favourable situations for Newcastle. The team’s defensive line excels in aerial duels, often enabling the team to win back possession comfortably.

When stationed deeper in a mid-block, Newcastle prioritise defending the inside spaces to again bait situations where they can jump to pressure the ball and win it back. Stationed in a 4-5-1, the higher number of players in the midfield line means they can occupy the inside spaces better when defending in the central channel. This aspect also helps to give greater coverage to the ball when the opposition do play wide.

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The optimal application of individual central midfield defensive fundamentals such as ‘defending zonally to maintain the defensive balance’ and ‘identifying the defensive responsibility’ allows Newcastle to have a high control of these game situations.

With their options to progress the ball cut out, often the opponent is forced to circulate it back through their defensive line. This provokes another trigger for the nearest player from the midfield line to jump and press. Often, the sudden change of ‘defensive rhythm’ destabilises the opponent resulting in them playing backwards to maintain possession. As seen in the below picture, the Newcastle striker, whether it by Alexander Isak or Callum Wilson, will chase down the passes all the way back to the goalkeeper in order to force the long pass.

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These situations can turn into promising counterattacks for the Magpies. Upon wining the 2nd ball, often the opposition are in a wide-open attacking structure with open gaps to exploit on the transition through their quick wingers in Jacob Ramsey and Allan Saint-Maximin.

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Defending the Box

The previously mentioned aerial strengths of the Newcastle defensive line are a key asset when defending the penalty area. The conditional structure of defenders such as Fabian Schar, Sven Botman and 6’6 left back Dan Burn allows them to be dominant in duels due to their upper body strength and height. This is reflected in the excellent application of the Z1 Universal Fundamental of ‘Individually Defending The Attackers In The Box In Crossing Moments’.

It is the execution of the finer micro-concepts of this fundamental which gives the defenders a greater control in the defence of their mark. Each player cleverly uses their body to impede the opponent’s run and cunningly uses such tactics as blocks with their arms to disrupt the attacker’s momentum.

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Newcastle manager Eddie Howe is one of the candidates for Premier League Manager of the Season after how far he has taken the team in just under 18 months at the helm. The team’s defensive solidity has all but guaranteed them European Football at St. James Park next season. It will be intriguing to follow how the top teams on the continent adapt to the highly organised Magpies, and how they themselves evolve for competing against Europe’s best.

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