Tactics writer looks ahead to Southampton's Sunday showdown with one of the Premier League's in-form teams, Newcastle United.
Newcastle are flying high.
They come into this weekend in fourth place in the Premier League, meaning whispers of a European charge have genuine merit. They’re scoring freely, have the league’s best defence (just ten conceded) and have won the hearts and minds of St James’ Park after years in the doldrums.
Clever recruitment over the past 12 months has bulked up the XI and allowed them to not only dominate certain games, but go toe-to-toe with some of the best in the division too.
Consistency is key – they won five games in October, equalling a club record – and it’s epitomised by Sven Botman, who joined in the summer, has played 12 games for the club and is yet to lose.
Many of these Newcastle players are playing the best football of their lives, with the likes of Joelinton and Miguel Almirón reaffirming the importance of confidence in football.
It’s perhaps more of a who than a what, as although Newcastle have been excellent as a unit so far this season, there’s a man in the middle pulling all the strings: Bruno Guimarães.
A marquee pickup from Lyon last winter and an Olympic gold medalist too, Bruno’s a pass-master who sits at the base of the Magpies’ midfield and pings the ball to a variety of places.
There’s a particular emphasis in Eddie Howe’s tactics of inviting opposition pressure in order to play over it, into the runs of Almirón and Co. The centre-backs chip in with a few balls, but really the scheme is built around Bruno’s accuracy over distance.
He’ll provide Southampton with the classic conundrum of whether to close him down (and risk exposing the defence) or standing off him (and letting him dictate).
Paradoxically, the tactic Newcastle use to bait opponents into opening up a weakness could well count as their own Achilles heel.
Newcastle are a high-pressing team. That approach to the game, as Saints know more than most, comes with a set of risks that balance out the reward. If the pressure fails or is played through, there’s a lot of space in behind the defensive line to potentially exploit.
It’s for that reason so many clubs favour athleticism and recovery speed in their centre-backs nowadays, but in this sense, the Magpies go against the grain: Fabian Schär and Sven Botman can be vulnerable against raw pace, while Dan Burn is certainly the only 6’7” left-back about.
Heung-Min Son escaped in behind a number of times in Tottenham’s defeat to Newcastle last week, while Leon Bailey caused a few issues for Aston Villa last weekend too.
If Saints can catch them high up the pitch, they can be turned; Adam Armstrong’s straight-line speed and Ché Adams’s work in the channels could be hugely important here.
Patience and perseverance may also be key, as Newcastle have conceded eight of their ten goals in the second half of games – something that may be symbolic of their high-intensity approach.
Pope; Trippier, Schär, Botman, Burn; Bruno Guimarães, S. Longstaff, Willock; Almirón, Wilson, Saint-Maximin.
-One of Jacob Murphy or Allan Saint-Maximin will step in for Joelinton, who is suspended
-Wilson is in good form – six goals in nine PL starts this season – and is gunning for a World Cup spot
-Targett may come back in at left-back for Burn at some point, but Howe seems happy with the consistency of his selections at the moment
-Saints must be wary of Trippier’s set-pieces, whose effectiveness from a dead ball rivals James Ward-Prowse