Newcastle United surprised many by finishing 5th in the league last year, picking up 65 points in 38 games. Alan Pardew’s team featured an attack containing the likes of midfielders Yohan Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa, as well as strikers Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba. While you would be forgiven for not having heard of them prior to last year, the same cannot be said now. And while Newcastle remained largely unchanged going into this season, the results have been anything but the same. Through the first 12 games of this season, the Magpies find themselves in 12th place, 9 points behind 4th place West Bromwich Albion. Although pundits were largely split on whether Newcastle were poised to build on last season’s form and challenge for a Champions League spot, or were destined for a slump (often experienced by teams who have overachieved the year before), what’s clear is that no one predicted them to plummet this far down. While injuries in recent weeks to Cabaye and Ben Arfa have certainly played a role, the club was in far from flawless form even when the duo was fit. So, what has been the difference thus far for Newcastle?
This piece attempts to answer this question by examining the relevant attacking and defending statistics for Newcastle United from this season, and comparing them to last season. The author then addresses the inevitable follow up question, as to whether there is genuine cause for concern for Magpies fans this season.
The above chart shows the defending and tackling stats, with last season’s numbers on the left (in blue) and this season’s on the right (in orange). As the graphic shows, goals conceded per game are virtually the same, with the Magpies giving up 1.42 per game this season and 1.34 last. Ground and aerial 50-50 winning percentages are both slightly up this season, rising from 48% to 50% and 47% and 48% respectively. Overall tackling success on the other hand is slightly down, dropping from 73.92% last season to 72.69% so far this season. 3 last man tackles have been successful this season, while 8 were made last season. However, defensive errors committed and minutes played per defensive error are where the difference between this season and last is most pronounced. Newcastle has already made only 1 error less than all of last season (13 vs. 14) despite only playing 12 games so far this season. This vast difference is also reflected in the minutes per defensive error category, as they have made an error about 3.5 times more often this season than last (278 minutes vs. 82 minutes). Although the defensive errors are occurring at an alarming rate and are clearly playing a large role in Newcastle’s troubling start to the season, the other statistics are eerily similar to last season and point to a competent team. While it cannot be achieved overnight, cleaning up the glaring defensive errors is something that is achievable.
The passing chart shows 5 different passing aspects: open play pass completion%, overall pass completion%, defensive zone pass completion%, attacking zone pass completion%, and final third pass completion%. The passing numbers are up this season across the board, with the most pronounced changes occurring from open play (4% increase) and in the defensive zone (4% increase). Again, this points to the fact that Newcastle has continued to perform at the same level (even better in this case) this year as they did last year. In terms of passing the ball, there is little to be worried about.
Newcastle Going Forward
In terms of goal scoring, creating assists, and converting chances, it has been a mixed bag thus far. Newcastle has yet to create an assist from a setplay this season, while making 4 last season. They have also only created a fifth of the total assists, while playing slightly under a third of the season. However, Newcastle are actually creating chances more often this season, averaging 1 chance created every 9.13 minutes, compared to 1 chance every 10.73 minutes last season. Additionally, they are creating essentially 1 clear cut chance per game (every 87.8 minutes), while only creating 1 such chance on average every 109.6 minutes last season. Surprisingly, this had led to scoring less than a quarter (13 vs. 56) of last season’s goals. Finally, and likely most telling, Newcastle’s shooting accuracy, chance conversion rate, and clear cut chance conversion rate are all down. The shooting accuracy and chance conversion rates have experienced slight drops, while the clear cut chance conversion rate has plummeted from 48% to 24%!
Although Newcastle United currently find themselves in 12th place in the Barclay’s Premier League, they are not as different as many believe than the team that finished 5th last season. There are those who are chalking their failure up to an increased number of fixtures from the Europa League or the inevitable second season struggle following an overachievement, but this does not appear to be the case. While they have made a fairly alarming number of glaring defensive errors that have led to goals, these are mistakes that can ultimately be corrected. It would be far more worrisome in fact, if they were performing poorly across the board defensively. Up front, although they are failing to convert a large number of chances, the fact that they are actually getting more of them is encouraging. Demba Ba has performed well again, and it is not possible to fathom a scenario in which Cisse plays as poorly as he has so far this season. Furthermore, with Cabaye and Ben Arfa on their way to recovery, the squad will be back to full health in the near future.
Finishing 5th again is likely out of the picture due to the large number of points dropped already, but a top 6-8 finish is not out of the question; something that would likely appease the masses.