Jonjo Shelvey’s inexplicable decision to stand on the ankle of Spurs midfielder Dele Alli and subsequent sending off was the turning point in Newcastle’s opening match of the season.
However, to say that Newcastle wouldn’t have lost the game if Shelvey had remained on the pitch is stretching the bounds of probability somewhat.
Spurs had been poor by their standards in the first half but were still comfortably in control of the game at the time of Shelvey’s dismissal. Newcastle had managed just a single shot during the half while Tottenham fired nine at Rob Elliot’s goal with two finding the target. Mauricio Pochettino’s side had also dominated possession over the first 45 minutes.
So, how could Newcastle have turned those stats and the match in their favour? To find out, we used Football Manager to replay the match and tried out a variety of tactics as the Toon – here’s what worked for Benitez’s side.
Newcastle’s best spell in the match yesterday came in the opening 20 minutes when they saw more of the ball than at any other stage of the game and looked lively from set-pieces. Their ability to crowd out the Tottenham midfield without losing their shape amongst the back four gave The Magpies a foothold in the match.
On FM, we tried to replicate this and asked the team to play with a structured shape and tasked Shelvey and Hayden with closing down Dier and Wanyama in order to cut off some of the supply to Eriksen, Alli and Kane.
This was particularly effective in the first half as Tottenham struggled to adapt their tactics around our strategy. Hayden repeatedly harangued Wanyama and restricted his options to playing mainly sidewards passes to Dier, who in turn was pressured into mistakes by Shelvey.
So far, so good but the real Newcastle side wilted in the second half and lost their shape quickly after Shelvey’s red card. We were keen to ensure the same thing wouldn’t happen in the virtual encounter so asked our full-backs to press the Tottenham wide men in case Tottenham attempted to switch their attacking focus away from the centre of the pitch.
Clever movement in midfield allowed Pochettino’s side to occasionally break through the midfield but with Ciaran Clark and Florian Lejeune asked to work together to block service to Harry Kane, Spurs were reduced to shooting from distance. Tiredness across our backline afforded Kane his first real glimpse of goal but Rob Elliot produced a good save to deny him.
Perhaps the biggest problem for Newcastle yesterday was a lack of very little in the way of chance creation. We inadvertently created opportunities for Dwight Gayle as the game opened up and Spurs switched to a more attacking style of play in search of a goal but found that we struggled to create any clear-cut chances – something that could become a regular feature for Newcastle this season.
Newcastle’s biggest threat yesterday came from set-pieces and it proved to be the case for us as well. Our winning goal came courtesy of a Clark header from a corner inside the last ten minutes with Tottenham set up to hit us on the counter. Matt Ritchie also forced Lloris into a good save from a free-kick from just outside the box but our attacking performance was far less satisfactory than our defensive one. Benitez will need to address that if Newcastle are to pull themselves clear of a relegation scrap this season.
Benitez certainly sent his team out yesterday with the right mindset and tactical approach as Football Manager proved.
Their pressing of Tottenham on a wider pitch than perhaps Spurs were comfortable with turned the game into a dull stalemate in the first half. Shelvey’s red card left them more vulnerable defensively but the team quickly abandoned their shape as tempers frayed around the Dele Alli incident.
By expanding on the pressing game that Benitez utilised early on in the game we were able to frustrate Spurs and confine the majority of play to the centre of the park as neither side particularly threatened at any point.
We rode our luck at times, grabbed a cheap headed goal and shut up shop to take a narrow but satisfying win. Rafa might have to rely on similar tactics if he wants to secure Newcastle’s survival this season.