Newcastle United are going through their toughest stretch of the season: three straight away games to top four teams (at Brighton, at Huddersfield and at Reading) in a span of seven days, and the club has responded magnificently so far with two colossal victories.
If you read the match facts and didn’t know what the end result of the game was, you’d think Newcastle United lost 5-0. 16 attempts to 6, 9 corners to 3, 76% possession to 24%, and over 400 more passes by Huddersfield today. Despite all of that, the Magpies pull off their second straight away win against one of the hottest teams in the league; a side that hasn’t lost at home since November.
Huddersfield dominated the ball but Rafa Benitez’s game plan was executed to a tee; give the opposition their possession, stay compact and in your position, don’t break down and hit them with the counter. Trust the system and the players did.
Matt Ritchie converted from the penalty spot. Daryl Murphy and Dwight Gayle also had goals to give Newcastle the 3-1 win, which now put them five clear of Brighton and eleven ahead of third-placed Huddersfield (who have a game in hand). Here are my thoughts on the match:
It’s incredible to watch a plan take place. How often have we witnessed that in the past years? Under Pardew, Carver and McClaren, it seemed like players would tend to drift away from game plans – but Rafa brings a different aura to this club (I feel like I write that all the time). The players are trusting his word and tactics, sticking to the plan and implementing it on the pitch. You can see it in the results and in their performances.
What a turnaround this past week has been. Last Saturday, United were down 2-0 at half-time against Bristol City and a failure to secure automatic promotion was talked about. With a loss, plus three away games coming up against top clubs in the league, NUFC would’ve had a steep mountain to climb. Disappointment is a sentiment Newcastle fans are accustomed to and this would’ve been nothing new to them.
However, the Magpies scored two late goals in the second half and tied the game up versus Bristol City. Three days later, we travelled to Brighton and beat them with two late goals and now, three points at Huddersfield. Benitez made sure to keep the players level headed. He didn’t let them get too low on themselves when they were losing 2-0 versus Bristol City or down 1-0 at Brighton – that is a sign of a team who trust each other and their gaffer.
Ciaran Clark has turned out to be an incredible signing. He overtook Mbemba’s spot early on in the season and has excelled ever since. A reputation at Aston Villa for poorly timed and clumsy tackles, bad decision-making and indiscipline, Clark has shown the complete opposite thus far as a Magpie.
It could be the change of scenery or the coaching but the Irish international has been one of the unsung heroes for Newcastle this season. A brick wall in front of Karl Darlow, Clark seems to be first to the ball on most 50/50s or challenges in the air. It is refreshing to finally see some signings pan out for the club, especially one who was scrutinised by both Villa and United fans at first but now looks like a great bit of business by the club.
Matt Ritchie has also been one of the most consistent players this season but his defensive discipline is what impressed me the most today. He puts in a shift on most nights (if not all) and was very composed against Huddersfield. Covering for the full back when needed, supporting the striker and Diame too, but also never drifting away from Benitez’s game plan.
What scares me the most is the amount of minutes he’s played so far. The Championship is a rough league and a long, tiring season; injuries are bound to happen and fatigue does too. With eleven matches left in the campaign, not only is it vital that Ritchie stays healthy but also disciplined. He is one yellow card away from a ban. Ritchie, along with Jonjo Shelvey, is one of the players United cannot afford to lose.
It was nice to see Dwight Gayle back on the score sheet today. Gayle, Shelvey and Ritchie have only played together for a full 90 minutes twice this season – and Newcastle scored 4 goals on both occasions. You could make a legitimate argument that he was the most valuable player in the early part of the campaign.
Thankfully, the club has some depth at the position and players like Daryl Murphy are able to fill in for Gayle. Hamstring injuries are very tricky. I don’t think it’s been easy for Gayle to recover from it but he did look the part today and that’s a positive sign for the club.
With eleven games left in the season and eleven points separating us from third place, Newcastle United cannot be too high on themselves. I’m sure Benitez will keep them levelheaded because Reading away will be a tough match. United are now undefeated in ten straight games and despite the lack of reinforcements and activity in the January transfer window, the team has pushed forward and onwards.
As previously stated, this is the toughest stretch of the season for the club and they have responded well so far. How will they do on Tuesday? Only time will tell.