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Best Central Midfield Combination For Newcastle United? Stats Analysis

With the increasing number of teams playing with formations that include a three man central midfield, whether it’d be 4-3-3, 4-5-1, 4-2-3-1 or even a false 9, it is near impossible to play the 4-4-2 formation, which served Newcastle well in the first part of the 2011/12 season.  During that season, an inform Tiote and Cabaye built a formidable partnership and were able to control games against other teams who played two in central midfield, for example our away game versus Aston Villa.  However, up against a three man central midfield, whenever Tiote and Cabaye were on the ball, they were either quickly closed down or their passing options would be closed down.  Whenever they did not have possession, they would be chasing shadows being outnumbered and Newcastle would lose the impetus to control the game.  Our opening game last season against Spurs was a perfect example.  Newcastle started with 4-4-2, but Pardew changed it to a 4-3-3 at half time after a poor first half performance.  The second half saw more possession for Newcastle and the tactic to change formation helped to win the game 2-1.

The recent sale of utility man James Perch and the impending departure of non-utility man, Dan Gosling, it leaves five central midfielders fighting for the three central midfield berths; Yohan Cabaye, Cheick Tiote, Moussa Sissoko, Gael Bigirimana and Vernon Anita.  It could even be six, if you include Jonas Gutierrez, who has filled the defensive midfield position on a number of occasions.  Using the EPL Index Stats Centre, we can see what strengths and weaknesses, each player brings.




In a recent interview, Sissoko stated that his preferred role was in defensive midfield, but looking at his ground and aerial 50-50s, his statistics look poor.  Sissoko won 39% of his ground duels last season and despite his 6’2 frame, he only won 35% of his aerial duels.  Perhaps, this is an unfair criticism being his first season in a more competitive league compared to Ligue 1 – only time will tell.  Unsurprisingly, Cabaye and Anita also lose out on the majority of their aerial battles due to their lack of height.  One popular criticism of Vernon Anita, is that with his slight frame, whether he can impose himself in a midfield battle – although arguably this hasn’t stopped Jack Wilshere being influential in the heart of Arsenal’s midfield.

19 year old Gael Bigirimana fairs well in this section – winning 4 out of every 5 tackles he makes and also performing well in ground and aerial 50-50s.  An encouraging start to his career at Newcastle United.  It was disappointing to see that he got very few minutes at the recent FIFA U-20 World Cup, even though he’s had more experience in the Premiership and the Europa League last season than the rest of his midfield squad members put together.

I think it’s a general consensus amongst Newcastle supporters that Tiote hasn’t been performing to the high standards that he set on his debut season, which brought rumours of Chelsea and Manchester United forming bids of excess of £20 million for the Ivorian.  Despite being a stop-start season with disruptions due to international duty and injuries, some of his defending statistics look good – 75% tackling success and the most interceptions of the group, even though he’s played less minutes than Cabaye and Gutierrez.  However, the four defensive errors last season epitomises his form last season.  He can perform well one minute, but with a lapse of concentration in the next, the mistake could prove to be costly.

The possession table below emphasises the type of season that Tiote had.  He won more possessions in the defensive and midfield third than Cabaye and Gutierrez, who played more minutes than Tiote; a minutes per possession won rate of 10 minutes and yet his dispossession rate is high in relation to the minutes played on the pitch.  Vernon Anita, playing roughly the same amount of time as Tiote, was only dispossessed 16 times compared to Tiote’s 40.  If Tiote can regain his confidence and concentration for the forthcoming season, an area that Pardew will have to address, it will help Newcastle in improving on their torrid performance last season.




Looking at the passing statistics, Bigirimana completion rates look very promising.  He plays less of his passes forward, opting to choose to play it either side.  Playing as a defensive midfielder, this could be viewed a positive by keeping it simple and keeping the ball ticking over.  It also allows other more attacking players to do their business and lets the defensive midfielder to continue to keep the shape of the team and protect the defence – more renowned as the ‘Makelele role’ or the ‘water-carrier’ as Eric Cantona once called Didier Deschamps.  But that’s not to say, Bigirimana isn’t able to pick out an attacking pass.  His passing zone statistics show that he has a greater success rate of passes in the attacking zone (82%) and in the final third (78%) compared to the others.

Cabaye’s passing statistics look disappointing and below the standards that is expected of the French international.  He has one of the lowest pass completion rates compared to his teammates (80%) and this decreases further when corner kicks and free kicks are taken into account.  A 7% drop confirms Cabaye’s poor distribution that frustrated supporters have witnessed from free kicks and especially from corners.  Again, his attacking (63%) and final third phase passes (60%) look poor, but this will be affected by the set-piece issues.

Similarly to the point made earlier, Sissoko’s passing rate in the defensive zone (87%) is the lowest from the group – another reason to discount him playing a defensive midfielder role next season?  Further upfront, his statistics look better – only second best to Bigirimana with passes made in the final third (72%).


Creativity new

With this in mind and only two assists all season, is this a fault of the player, the lack of options to upfront to aim for or match tactics – or perhaps a bit of all three? One redeeming point is that Cabaye had created 9 clear cut chances last season, which could have brought more assists if all were finished.

On a side note, Gutierrez’s statistics are incredibly poor for a player who has played on the wing for the majority of the season.  The much maligned pair, Stewart Downing and James Milner created more chances that Gutierrez has.

Goal Attempts

Goal Attempts

With six goals last season, five from open play and one penalty, Cabaye tops the list from the group.  Evidently he has played twice as many minutes as January signing, Moussa Sissoko, but looking at analysis per minute, their statistics are quite similar.  Where before Sissoko seemed lacking in defensive duties, he looks better offensively.  Along with Cabaye, he has finished his two clear cut chances and has an overall similar chance conversion rate to Cabaye.  On the other hand, Vernon Anita has missed both of his clear cut chances, but has scored for Newcastle when he a scored a sweet volley with the outside of his boot against Brugge in the Europa League.  From a similar position, Bigirimana scored his first goal in a Newcastle shirt against Wigan.


Assuming that Pardew does opt to play with a three man central midfield, it would be nice to see a formation and more importantly, tactics that help the team as a whole.  In a private meeting with fans last year, Pardew stated ‘if you control the midfield, you control the game’.  With this in mind, why have been hoofing the ball from back to front?  On average last season, Newcastle played the most long balls per game.

Ideal line up?


From looking at the statistics provided by the Stats Centre, Cheick Tiote is the best player at our disposal who can play the role of defensive midfielder.  Even though he has had an indifferent season to his debut season, his defensive statistics still remain impressive and the best at Newcastle.  Pardew has to find a way of knocking out the carelessness in Tiote’s play and making him concentrate on the simple things – breaking up play and pass the ball on.  As shown above, by sticking to his role of defensive midfielder, he should be able to cover the runs of Debuchy and Santon on either side when they venture further up the wings – similar to the way Busquets will cover when Jordi Alba makes one of his trademark runs.

As well as providing cover for the defence, this also allows Cabaye to play further up the pitch, along with Sissoko.  Many times last season, it looked as though Newcastle played a 4-2-3———1, with Cisse isolated and with the long ball being hoofed to Cisse, we lost possession and the opposition were back to attacking us.

Despite Sissoko claiming his preferred position is in defensive midfield, the statistics show otherwise.  Defensively, he doesn’t look as sound as Tiote and his attacking statistics show he is better placed in a more attacking position.  His pace and power can cause problems for any defence, as shown when he outran Ashley Cole, giving him a 15 yard head start in the process.

Although he has only played a fraction of the 2012-13 season, Bigiramana looks a very decent prospect at only 19 years old and from last season’s stats, he arguably looks a better proposition that Vernon Anita does at the moment.  It will be good to see both players to get some more playing time this season.

As for Jonas, where does he fit in?  He’s not attack minded enough to play left wing – his most effective games came at the start of the 11-12 season where he and Ryan Taylor formed a good partnership and Gutierrez helped Taylor a lot with defensive duties.  I don’t believe he should be playing in centre midfield, as we should be giving more playing time to Bigirimana and Anita, who are just as capable, if not better.  It looks like his playing days should be coming to an end, but with him being one of Pardew’s favourites, it’s hard for it to see.

With either two from Gouffran, a fit Marveaux and Ben Arfa on each flank and every one on top of their game, Newcastle have a formidable midfield.  But all too often last season, injuries, lack of form and international duty all hampered our midfielders at some point.  It makes no sense for Pardew to play long balls up to an isolated Cisse in the hope that we can retain the ball and control the game.  Frankly, he’s not got the ability to hold up the ball.  With the players in Newcastle’s disposal, we should be playing some decent, flowing football through our midfield – which allows our midfielders to support the lone striker too.  Hopefully last season’s near relegation miss was a wake up call for Alan Pardew.

[box_light]All of the stats from this article have been taken from the Opta Stats Centre at EPLIndex.comSubscribe Now (Includes author privileges!) Check out our new Top Stats feature on the Stats Centre which allows you to compare all players in the league & read about new additions to the stats centre.[/box_light]

Newcastle United supporter and blogger. Creator of www.nufcvisualised.wordpress.com. Lover of all things football. Follow me on Twitter @avaehe
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