This was the cliched game of two halves, with Alan Pardew’s drastic reaction to a dreadful first half allowing Newcastle to improve massively. It took a root-and-branch shift in how his team were approaching the game to change the course of a match which had been very one-sided in the first half, but the Magpies’ coach was rewarded for his bravery. This match clearly illustrated that substitutions can change the shape of a game.
With injuries hampering his plans, Pardew set his team out in a 4-2-3-1 which seemed to acknowledge they started from a position of weakness and had to set themselves out to deal with Everton’s strengths and not play to their own. Hatem Ben Arfa was shifted over to the left, meaning he wouldn’t have to track back when Leighton Baines bombed forwards, with Sylvain Marveaux given that role at the expense of Demba Ba. If that decision raised eyebrows in terms of the obvious diminution in firepower in Pardew’s side, it equally failed to address the defensive issue either, as Marveaux’s value when Newcastle were defending was purely ornamental.
The first half, from Everton’s point of view, should be shown to anyone striving to understand what David Moyes is trying to do with this side, because everything went according to plan. The basic 4-4-2 shape was merely a starting point as a well-drilled side shifted the ball quickly without resorting to the long ball despite the temptation of having Nikita Jelavic and Marouane Fellaini in the attacking third. As a result, they penned Newcastle back and enjoyed a terrific amount of possession in midfield which they used cleverly rather than merely passing passively in front of their opponents’ deep midfield. Particularly key were the triangles worked on the left hand side between Leighton Baines, Stephen Pienaar and whoever else popped up to make a third man.
Unsurprisingly, Baines (6) and Pienaar (5) had more penalty area entries than any other player in the game. In fact, the duo dominated the attacking stats: between them they were top in chances created, chances created in open play, chances created from set pieces, assists and dribbling accuracy, often with the other in second place!
Illustrating the fluidity contained within their 4-4-2, it was often Kevin Mirallas, ostensibly the right-winger, who popped up in the left channel to help out. Left-footed, he was happy drifting narrow to get into shooting positions, and nearly scored in that manner in the 41st minute as well as teeing up a disallowed second minute goal for Jelavic. Soon afterwards, when Ben Arfa failed to track back, it took a good Mike Williamson tackle to halt an adventurous diagonal run into the box.
But when he wandered onto the left he was equally threatening, cutting in to hit shots just wide twice in the opening twenty minutes. It was when Mirallas, Fellaini and Leon Osman joined in as the third man on the left that Everton really threatened. Like a dog leashed to a lampost, Marveaux seemed reluctant to go deep beyond a certain point and actually commit to tracking back, and Everton regularly worked the extra man in cleverly. The movement inside of Pienaar was crucial to that, often taking James Perch into areas he didn’t really want to be and allowed the more vertical movement of Baines space to exploit. Four minutes before such movement ended in Baines scoring from a Pienaar assist the duo had almost opened the Newcastle defence up in very similar manner in combination with Osman.
The only Everton players not to fully enjoy their measured approach play were, ironically, the men up at the sharp end. Jelavic and Fellini sometimes showed frustration that early crosses didn’t come in for them to attack because the build up play on the wings was so intricate and deliberate.
That’s not to say the combination play down the left didn’t result in crosses. Baines (8) and Pienaar (4) delivered more crosses than any other player in the match, but they tended to be cut-backs at the end of patient interplay and not the early, high balls Fellaini and Jelavic might have preferred. This careful approach play was reflected by the fact that Everton didn’t attempt a single through ball in the whole match.
Everton had the personnel to go direct, of course, but rarely did, and ironically when they did it was neither of them who benefitted: just after the half hour Phil Jagielka, still up after a set piece, won a long Hibbert ball and drove the return pass against outside of post.
Five minutes before the break came a clear illustration of why they didn’t want to play too long: a long ball to Fellaini saw him bring it down well and feed it quickly out to Pienaar, but the transition was too quick so there was no support for the South African to try to work another triangle and the attack petered out.
The foundation for Everton’s threatening work down the left came from a unified approach to pressing. Newcastle had 32% possession in the first 10 minutes, but it felt like less as they snatched at passes under constant pressure from an energetic, organised Everton side and provided laughably poor service to their attacking players.
Newcastle’s midfield found themselves treading on their back four’s toes as Everton moved the ball about. When Everton lost the ball they kept their shape well and pressed effectively, forcing long, hopeful, poor quality balls to Cisse.
A typical example of this came when an Everton attack broke down and Vernun Anita carried the ball out of his area but, with so many players entrenched deeper than him he launched a wild ball forwards that landed half the width of the pitch away from Marveaux, the only player ahead of him. No wonder the game ended with Newcastle making a whopping 55 clearances (only 30 accurate) compared to Everton’s 38.
On the rare occasions Newcastle got into Everton’s half, their passing was hurried and snatched at. By contrast, Everton found transition through the phases of play easy, especially on the rare occasions when Newcastle had a decent number of players in their half. An extreme example of this came half way through the first half when two passes took the ball from edge of Everton’s area into Newcastle’s six yard box, where Jelavic won a corner.
Newcastle only managed to carve out two opportunities in the first half, and appropriately one of those came from a poorly defended set piece rather than any creativity on their part, while the other, admittedly arising after a rare spell of pressure, benefitted from a couple of lucky bounces leading to Anita having a shot cleared off the line. The balance of play was neatly summed up by the action areas in the first 25 minutes: 40-43-17 looked more like a bank sort code than an even game of football.
Next Page: Second Half analysis with controversy and comebacks…