On Sky Sports yesterday, pundit Rob Lee described Newcastle’s win away at Swansea as a ‘smash and grab’ at the final whistle. Looking at the stats you could only come to the conclusion he was right, Swansea having a massive 77% share of possession by the end. In a post-match interview Brendan Rogers, the Swansea manager, claimed Swansea dominated the game. There’s a big difference between dominating possession and dominating a game however. To do the latter you usually do the former, but controlling possession doesn’t guarantee dominating a game. Newcastle scored an early goal and set themselves up to contain a Swansea side usually lacking a cutting edge. Swansea duly kept the possession handed to them but did little with it. If Newcastle hadn’t scored would they have been as happy for Swansea to pass it around in midfield? We’ll never know for sure, but what we do know is that the majority of Swansea’s efforts were from outside the box. They never got behind either Newcastle full back and played in front of a compact side playing defensively for the most part. Swansea started with one striker and 5 in midfield against a Newcastle side playing in a 4-3-3. If they didn’t dominate possession in those circumstances they need shooting, but perhaps they’d have been better giving up some of the ball and sacrificing a midfielder for another striker to try and provide more of a threat. I’ll say it simply one last time: Possession is not an end in itself.
Rogers also said the main difference between the teams was their strikers. Again he’s right, but in more ways than perhaps he meant. Of course, Newcastle’s strikers scored two goals and Swansea’s none. But beyond that, the potency of Newcastle’s strikeforce means that they can comfortably sit back and try to contain sides like Swansea, safe in the knowledge that a chance will come at some point and be converted when it does. Newcastle don’t need to be expansive away from home at the moment because they have confidence a clean sheet is likely to mean a win. Unsurprisingly, adopting that outlook has resulted in the resumption of the ability to gain clean sheets which was so common at the start of the season and which was lost over Christmas. The central defensive pairing of Williamson and Perch, criticised so much during that leaky middle section of the season, might point to the fact that they have been present for the last two clean sheets, Williamson for more. Maybe style and tactics had more to do with conceding goals than personnel in the middle part of the season.
A major topic of conversation has become Demba Ba and his supposed dip in form, and how he must now be unhappy at being usurped by Papiss Cisse. Ba is playing as well as ever, but it so happens that in our current tactical formation he starts on the left of a front 3 with Cisse through the middle. It is an indisputable fact that it’s more difficult for him to get on the scoresheet from there. Anyone who thinks his form has dipped purely because he hasn’t scored recently wants to go back to their Fantasy Football league and stick to that, because unless you think form is only measured in goals and assists, Ba is doing just as valuable a job for the team as before. Having a ready made goalscoring machine to replace Cisse in the event of injury is handy too. Remember it’s a squad game, and Ba will know that. A squad which is on the thin side just to cope with the Premier League this season, will need major reinforcements in the summer to handle the number of extra games should European qualification be achieved. Ba, Cisse, and a number of new faces will all be needed in the course of a long season should Newcastle qualify and make a success of their cup challenges.
Winning ugly is the sign of a successful team, as folklore has it. Newcastle can certainly do that on this evidence, though I’d classify their performance yesterday as more pragmatic than ugly. Both goals were the result of fine sweeping passing, the ball moving quickly along the ground through Swansea’s team to feed the lethal Papiss Cisse. Nothing ugly about that, they merely chose their moments to do it. Another good sign for a side hoping to push on and win games is a newly-rediscovered ability to keep clean sheets. Newcastle are currently ticking that box too. Add a striker in seemingly unstoppable form and a side with a genuine team spirit and a committed work ethic and you have a recipe for victories. TV previews insist on retaining a blind spot for Newcastle when discussing the race at the top and long may it last, hopefully no-one will notice until the end of the season comes and Newcastle are looking down on them. Can Newcastle pip one of those big clubs for a Europa League or Champions League spot? Only time will tell, but no-one can claim their league position is a flash in the pan any more.