Could more clubs follow Newcastle's ultra-defensive blueprint vs. Man City?
It's somewhat unusual to witness a Premier League footballer shooting direct from kickoff, but that's precisely what Newcastle's Jonjo Shelvey did at the start of Newcastle United's 1-0 defeat to Manchester City on Wednesday.
Shelvey is an amusingly wayward and unpredictable footballer at the best of times, but this attempt was actually part of Newcastle's strategy for their game against City.
Immediately after Shelvey's long-range attempt, Newcastle dropped off and set out their defensive-minded 5-4-1 deep inside their own half, refusing to be drawn up the pitch by Manchester City. Their kickoff was designed purely to concede possession, to establish their defensive shape and to prevent becoming involved in a frenetic early midfield scrap that would probably have seen them being overrun. It was an entirely negative approach, but, in some ways, it was rather effective.
Newcastle manager Rafael Benitez is arguably the most reactive coach in the Premier League. Famed for his attention to detail and for spending hours poring over video footage of opponents before deciding upon his approach for a game, his summary of Manchester City's tactics was simple: he didn't believe Newcastle had a hope of competing in an open game. His strategy therefore wasn't so much counterattacking as simply not attacking.
For the opening 20 minutes, Newcastle failed to push their defensive line up to a position closer to the halfway line than their own goal, and they didn't complete a single pass in the opposition third. It was the most blatant display of bus parking you'll ever witness from a home side.
Although inferior sides concentrating on defence against the big boys is nothing new, this felt like something else entirely. Previous famous defensive displays were usually dependent upon particular circumstances: a first-leg lead (Barcelona vs. Inter in 2010), a side going down to 10 men (Manchester City vs. QPR in 2012) or a side not overwhelmingly concerned about the result (Liverpool vs. Chelsea in 2014).
The defensive side were always the away side, too. But this was Newcastle, a grand old club once renowned for being The Entertainers, and a club who brought to an end the previous noteworthy attempt at an unbeaten Premier League season (Chelsea in 2014-15), playing in front of their home supporters. It was, from that perspective, somewhat depressing.
Yet Benitez's approach was logical; the more Newcastle pushed forward, the more likely they were to be caught out by City's swift passing combinations. The only time Pep Guardiola's side had an opportunity to counterattack, after a Newcastle set piece midway through the first half, they worked the counter brilliantly and Sergio Aguero missed at the far post.
For Newcastle, the optimum number of goals in this game was zero; that was the best chance of them winning anything from it, and that's what they hoped to achieve. Although Manchester City created some good opportunities, many of these came from set pieces and crosses, and Benitez would have been relatively pleased if he'd been informed, before the match, that this is where City's threat would arrive from. With David Silva absent, Kevin De Bruyne was City's most creative spark in open play, and although he played a couple of wonderful through balls, including for Raheem Sterling's stabbed winner, City were much less threatening than usual.
Newcastle's overwhelmingly defensive approach had a significant impact upon City's tactics, too. When Vincent Kompany limped off with yet another muscle injury after 15 minutes, Guardiola decided to introduce striker Gabriel Jesus rather than a replacement defender. He instead shifted Fernandinho into defence, with license to move forward on the ball. De Bruyne played almost permanently as a No. 10 with Ilkay Gundogan playing central midfield by himself. Against a Newcastle side barely threatening on the break, there was little requirement for central defenders, or indeed central midfielders.
You wonder whether the opposite was also true: Newcastle had no real use for Joselu, who started as their notional striker but spent the entirety of the game deep inside his own half and offered little counterattacking threat. A quick striker like Dwight Gayle, a link man like Ayoze Perez or even another central midfielder would have offered more, offensively or defensively.
But Newcastle, despite having so little of the ball, did create chances. Rolando Aarons' chipped effort was cleared off the line by Nicolas Otamendi, and later Gayle, on as a substitute, went to ground in search of a penalty when staying on his feet might have been wiser. There wasn't a lot to shout about, but Benitez will feel the narrow defeat, and these occasional half-chances, justified his starting approach.
The danger, of course, is that other managers will attempt to follow suit. Almost every opponent Manchester City encounter focuses upon defence, but not to the extent of Newcastle. A league campaign in which every opponent simply concedes possession and sets up camp inside its own third, even at home, would be terrible for the Premier League's entertainment value. Guardiola recently suggested the Premier League was more defensive than La Liga or the Bundesliga, and that was before this experience at St. James' Park, where he must have scoffed at the tactics of his compatriot Benitez.
There's a sense that Benitez didn't even want Newcastle to counterattack, for fear of leaving his defence exposed at counter-counters -- but that owes much to the limitations of his squad. This still feels like a Championship-quality starting XI, and therefore Newcastle played more like a lower-league side in a cup tie than a league rival, which says much about Newcastle's situation, not so much about the Premier League overall.
The majority of top-flight sides will offer more than Newcastle. Crystal Palace, City's next opponents, will defend deep and narrow in two banks of four, but use the speed of Andros Townsend and Wilfried Zaha to counterattack into space. Providing some level of attacking threat is still imperative, especially against a makeshift Manchester City centre-back pairing.
Newcastle's pragmatic manager and limited attacking quality mean they played even more cautiously, but this is unlikely to become a significant trend.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.