Newcastle 2-1 Tottenham: Pardew switches formation; Ben Arfa excels in both systems
Newcastle started their 2012/13 campaign with a hard-fought victory over Tottenham.
Fabricio Coloccini wasn’t fit to start for Newcastle, so Alan Pardew used James Perch at centre-back. New signing Vernon Anita was on the bench.
Andre Villas-Boas left Jan Vertonghen and Rafael van der Vaart on the bench. Jermain Defoe, Tottenham’s only senior striker, played upfront.
This game started slowly but got progressively more interesting. There were three main points of interest – (a) Villas-Boas’ strategy in his first game at Tottenham, (b) the battle down Newcastle’s right in the first half, and (c) Pardew’s half-time change in formation.
Villas-Boas couldn’t be a much more different manager than his predecessor, Harry Redknapp. Whereas Redknapp focuses upon getting the best out of individuals and emphasises his lack of interest in tactics (much of which is exaggeration), Villas-Boas is a former opposition scout who approaches football from a highly strategic point of view. As such, a big change in Tottenham’s tactics was anticipated.
But there wasn’t an overwhelmingly different feel to this Tottenham side. Villas-Boas made significant changes at Porto when he arrived, selling the two most established players (Bruno Alves and Raul Meireles) to mark a clean break from the past. Then, famously, he failed when trying to revolutionise the playing staff at Chelsea this time last year. At Spurs, he’s only been able to bring in two players – and with Vertonghen left out, Gylfi Sigurdsson was Spurs’ only new arrival in this starting XI.
At both Porto and Chelsea, Villas-Boas was a 4-3-3 man, but at Tottenham he doesn’t yet have the tools to play this way. He lacks a wide forward in the mould of Hulk or Daniel Sturridge, while Defoe isn’t really a typical lone striker, and requires close support. Therefore, Villas-Boas instead used a 4-2-3-1 system (which he did at some points at Chelsea, although this was probably more of a 4-2-1-3 with high pressing), with Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon higher up the pitch than they generally played under Redknapp, who liked to defend with two banks of four.
On such a hot day, pressing for 90 minutes was always going to be difficult – so this might not have been the best game to judge Villas-Boas’ intention in this respect. It appeared Tottenham’s strategy was to press Newcastle’s midfielders and full-backs, but not their centre-backs. This explains why Newcastle’s pass completion rate overall was only 81%, but Perch completed 46 of 46 passes, and Steven Taylor completed 39 from 40 – 99% combined.
With the ball, Tottenham looked promising when Sigurdsson broke forward to support Defoe. Newcastle were outnumbered in the centre of the pitch, and Sigurdsson often found himself free, popping up in the box for good chance in the first half (although he was offside). Lennon and Bale received the ball higher up the pitch and got into goalscoring positions themselves, and Defoe led the line well for someone so unsuited to that role.
Battle down Newcastle right
The key man here was Hatem Ben Arfa, who started off playing fairly strictly on the right for Newcastle, but increasingly drifted into the centre after around 10 minutes, where he became the game’s key player. Tottenham had a 3 v 2 midfield advantage, so Ben Arfa’s more central positioning helped Newcastle compete in that area of the pitch.
Although Tottenham hit the woodwork twice in the first half, the game was fairly slow, with the key features being three yellow cards – one to Danny Simpson, and one apiece to Tottenham’s central midfielders, Sandro and Jake Livermore. These were the two zones that had knock-on consequences from Ben Arfa’s positioning – not only was he giving Simpson no protection against the threat of Bale (not that it would be expected, and Bale was playing very high up the pitch anyway), but he was drifting inside to give Sandro and Livermore an unexpected problem. They were both booked for fouling the Frenchman.
Pardew changed shape at half-time, showcasing his flexibility by moving to a 4-3-3 with the same players he ‘dstarted with. Demba Ba moved to the left, Jonas Gutierrez tucked in, Ben Arfa pushed higher up.
It wasn’t a hugely dramatic change, but Newcastle did compete better in the second half. Cheick Tiote became the deepest of a midfield three, so Sigurdsson no longer enjoyed so much space. Also, Ba’s move to the left meant he occupied Kyle Walker, who had been breaking forward dangerously in the first half. Ba scored his goal from that left-sided position, although this was a great piece of individual skill rather than something Pardew can be praised for.
This could have gone either way – Tottenham got back in it, then lost the game because of poor defending by two attacking midfielders in their own box. The major features of the game involved Pardew’s switch, and Ben Arfa’s willingness to drift across the pitch to collect the ball.
Future opponents should note Ben Arfa’s tendency to leave Simpson exposed, however, and Newcastle’s capacity to be overrun in midfield with their starting 4-4-2 shape.
Tottenham’s performance was mildly encouraging, but further purchases are surely imminent, meaning Villas-Boas’ strategy may change significantly.