A Newcastle United game starts with a long ball and ends with Rafael Benitez folding his glasses. In between, there’s usually some defending going on. Below I’ll elaborate on this controversial form of art.
Vertically compact, horizontally compact. That’s the motto of Rafa’s deep 5–4–1. This Newcastle side is renowned for its positional sense out of possession. The midfield is their most paramount component; it’s where they decide how the other team attacks.
When the ball reaches an opposition FB/wide CB, the line moves ball-side, preventing obvious passing options. Usually the exterior CM jumps to either press or defend the half-spaces. This is where Newcastle keeps their clean sheets.
Most low blocks struggle keeping clean sheets because of the traditional way of conceding a high xG chance: the half-space diagonal. Newcastle prevent this by positioning 2 CM’s in both half-spaces. They track any possible inward movement.
Whenever the ball is in front of them, you can see the flawless shape Benitez has drilled into them. The opposition having possession in wide spaces means Newcastle’s structure shifts into the second variant.
The keywords of deep blocks are spacing and isolation. Opposing players are stripped from any central space and thus are obliged to play into the wide spaces. Evidently, Newcastle is pretty efficient at defending crosses.
In order to score goals on the other hand, low blocks operate using calculated circuits. Here are some examples of pre-meditated moves executed by Rafa’s XI. Last example is a blueprint of the build-up from the CB.
Rafa recognises the threat of any set-piece. That includes rotations on throw-ins, overloading on long free-kicks as seen here, sacrificing one player to hold off an opponent and taking regular free-kicks short.
Set-pieces are the cheapest and easiest goal source.
That’ll probably be just about it. Morale of the story is that there’s different ways of playing football and winning.
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