After just two games, Steve Bruce’s position as manager of his boyhood team Newcastle was already under question by some. In response, he goes and secures a superb win over Champions League finalists Tottenham Hotspur with a well-organised, disciplined defensive performance.
The game doesn’t really merit a match report – it followed the same basic pattern of Tottenham attacking and Newcastle defending throughout – and Newcastle also weren’t doing anything particularly interesting tactically. Nevertheless, Newcastle’s performance is perhaps worth a deeper look: we can recognise when a defence is well-drilled, but that doesn’t really say much about the specific features that allowed them to shut down their opponent. As there will be plenty of teams trying to do exactly that to Tottenham this season, it’s worth analysing how Newcastle managed it.
Newcastle lined up in a 3-4-3 formation that spent most of the match as a deep 5-4-1, sitting back to try and force Spurs to play through them. This shape made it easy for Newcastle to defend both through the middle and out wide, only really giving Spurs space in deep areas that they couldn’t realistically score from.
With the ball in the centre, Newcastle’s players tucked inside to form a narrow shape, making it very difficult for Spurs to pass through them. Joelinton would sometimes stay up high to provide a counter-attacking threat but generally he hovered just ahead of Harry Winks, rarely directly blocking the pass into him although staying close enough to discourage Tottenham from passing into him. If they did, Joelinton was in a position to trap Winks as a midfielder behind him closed him down, or block an escaping pass. As a result, the less creative Moussa Sissoko saw much more of the ball in the early proceedings.
Behind Joelinton, the midfield line was very narrow. With few gaps between them, there was no space to play a pass into the feet of the attackers between the lines and as a result Spurs were forced into passing wide to advance the ball into attacking areas.
This was aided by Newcastle’s defensive line, who were alert to any threats. If one of the attackers dropped off to try to receive the ball to feet, Newcastle’s defenders were content to follow them so long as they didn’t stray too far from their defensive position. As a result, in the unlikely chance that Spurs could squeeze a pass through the midfield, the recipient would have a defender at their back, making it extremely difficult to turn. Unable to easily control the ball with no space to work in, Spurs’ attackers were either forced into passing backwards which only got them back to square one or had the ball stolen back off them by one of the surrounding midfielders or defenders.
To prevent the Spurs defenders from simply hitting the ball over the top to an attacker running in behind, the defenders would quickly drop off to limit the space or cut out the pass. Their deep defensive line partially did this for them, leaving little space between them and the goalkeeper for Spurs to drop long passes into, however it required intelligent reading of the game from the backline. They were having to both step forward to stop the attackers receiving the ball to feet and drop off to stop them getting in behind – recognising which they had to do and when an attacker was attempting to trick them with their movement isn’t easy, but Newcastle’s defenders were equal to the challenge.
Unable to pass through the middle, Spurs were forced wide. Newcastle’s use of a back five ensured this didn’t leave them stretched though. The team became narrow when the ball was central, however an extra man in the backline compared to the more typical four meant that the wing-backs rarely had to tuck in too far. This meant they didn’t have much ground to cover to meet the Spurs widemen, so when the pass went wide they were immediately on top of the attacker to stop them having room to cross.
Their teammates would also get across quickly to support them, ensuring there wasn’t any gaps between them to be exploited. The back five meant that even if the nearest centre-backs came right across to help them, there was still three defenders available to defend the centre or opposite side, so there wasn’t the risk of being caught short elsewhere. Tottenham sometimes looked to overload the wide areas, however Newcastle were so compact that they usually still ended up outnumbering Spurs in these areas.
Ahead of them, the Newcastle wingers’ priority was to protect the centre rather than win back the ball. When the ball was played wide, the wingers would first take up a position to block any diagonal passes into the Tottenham attackers and then from there look to close down the man on the ball. Denying that pass inside left the full-back with two options: pass the ball down the line to a winger who now has a wing-back close to him or pass the ball backwards, which doesn’t solve the problem.
A pass inside to a holding midfielder was also available, although he would quickly be pressured by a Newcastle midfielder or Joelinton, again forcing him backwards.
This diligent defending won Newcastle the match, but was there anything Spurs could have done differently to turn the game in their favour?
The simplest answer is that they could have moved the ball around faster. Spurs often passed around quickly with one or two touches but these tended to be short passes that kept the ball in a small area, allowing Newcastle to easily get across and flood the area with players before Spurs could cut through. Newcastle worked very hard but had Tottenham drawn them over to one side of the pitch before forcing them into sprinting out to the other with a switch of play, fatigue would have had a better chance of catching up with them.
To be more specific in strategy, Newcastle’s defending meant the centre was always well-protected so the best opportunities would probably come from out wide. The defensive width provided by the back five meant that the wing-backs were never far away though, so they would have to be distracted for a Spurs player to get any space to attack.
One potential solution to this problem would be to attack down one side, pulling Newcastle across to that flank, while leaving two players high and wide on the opposite wing. The more advanced could stay wide enough so that they couldn’t be passed on to another defender by the wing-back and, as play is switched, make a decoy run to pull the wing-back into the centre. The pass would actually go to the other wide player making a run into space and he could quickly fire a cross into the middle.
The move is far from perfect though: it requires the Tottenham players to be able to pull off difficult cross-field passes quickly, and to fire a cross into a busy box both before the wing-back can get back across to stop them and with enough accuracy to ensure it doesn’t just get mopped up by Newcastle’s many defenders. On top of that, it’s reliant on the wing-back getting tricked by the first attacker’s run and not just reading the pass and going out to meet the second.