Tactics Explained: Newcastle United 11/12
Alan Pardew's fifth placed finishing side in the Premier League 2011/12 season, who also ended their 8-year absence from competing in European competitions by clinching the spot for the Europa League play-off, were one of the (if not the finest) teams during the Mike Ashley era.
The Senegalese Strike Force
In the Premier League, Newcastle United were at times fortunate but, self-assured and most importantly, unified. Winning 19 games, drawing 8 and losing 11.
The team were fired by an outrageous season's output from the Senegalese striking duo in Demba Ba and Papiss Demba Cisse, who scored 29 goals, amounting to a total of 52% of Newcastle's goals that season, with 9 of those goals being match winners.
Specifically, the inquisition of Papiss Cisse from FC Freiburg proved pivotal in getting Newcastle to Europe, the way Pardew had built his side, adding a second poacher paid dividends. 13 goals in 14 appearances, 12 of those being at furthest six yards away from the goal and of course that one sweet goal against Chelsea.
One of the biggest improvements was the arrangement of the back 4, by October, NUFC went from conceding 1.50 games per game to 0.57who conceded 51 goals held the 9th best defensive record in the league, kept 16 clean sheets. This was down to Pardew's specific approach to work on the defence during training. It was reported that Alan Pardew would split his training sessions into two, and "drag" his defenders away to work on positioning and covering. As well as showing detailed video analysis and hold weekly "defenders' meetings".
This was evident when key defenders such as Fabricio Coloccini, Danny Simpson, Ryan Taylor and Tim Krul (38) all played over 30 times.
The Formation & Tactics
Newcastle played mostly in a 4-4-2, often using Gutierrez and Obertan on the flanks with Ba and Best up front, before Cisse joined and nailed his place down as Ba's strike partner.
The central midfield functioned with a double pivot of the late Ivorian Cheick Tiote and the distributor, Yohan Cabaye, who sat in front of the back 4.
Stylistically, the foundations which helped United reach the heights of 5th remained relatively the same for most of the season. Newcastle defended with two banks of four, starting vertically compact but altering their width to which opponent they were up against at the time.
Pardew‘s centre backs weren’t necessarily the quickest or the most composed, but with Captain Fabricio Coloccini, Pardew had a reliable leader who had enough tactical awareness to provide wide cover or bring the ball out from the back into midfield.
If there was a turnover, the left-back Davide Santon would join the attack and right-back Danny Simpson would tuck into the defence to form a back three.
Pardew’s side tended to press only if the opposition mis-controlled or drifted wide and barely pressed in the opposition half at all. This was down to the low block Newcastle defended with when out of possession, the furthest men forward would usually be the ones to press which was often to prevent an oppositions distributor from moving the ball forward.
The teams defensive compact shape limited the style to counter-attack, there was a reliance certain individuals ability to win the ball, mark passing lanes and intercept, then break with pace when the ball was won back.
Going forwards Newcastle’s approach was dictated by two main factors. Firstly, Cheick Tiote’s ability to screen the back 4 and play it short to Yohan Cabaye enabled Cabaye to dictate the game from deep, launching raking counter-attack passes or moving with the ball into space created by the opposition after turnovers. And, once Cabaye had released wide men and front players, Pardew would call for his players to change to their attacking shape, which became a staggered 3-3-4.
The contributions from midfield were integral to creating goals, as a collective, the midfielders in, Cabaye, Tiote, Ben Arfa, Obertan, Gutierrez, Marveaux and Ryan Taylor assisted a total of 42% of the 59 goals that season.
Integrating Hatem Ben Arfa
Towards the latter stages of the league, their push for the top 5 was subtly different from their approach prior. The foundation was still the consistent back mid block in defence and hit on the break, but with Jonas Gutierrez who, covered more distance than any other Newcastle player that season joined to make the midfield a 3. From the end of April to the start of May, Newcastle won six straight games by effectively playing a 4-3-2-1, with Ba and Ben Arfa in the left and right half spaces and Cisse being the furthest forward. Ben Arfa specifically playing in the right half space, but would occasionally move inwards centrally, drop into deep central space and caused havoc with liquid ball carrying at lightning speeds.
This is where Ben Arfa was excelled, before this change he was an impact substitute but in the six games, he started all six and ended with 6 goal contributions.
Tactically simple, well organised, and built on a core of underrated and technical individuals. Alan Pardew's side wasn't doing anything new but kept the tactics basic and built a team spirit within the dressing room that carried the team to a height that nobody could've possibly foreseen.
The 11/12 Newcastle United will be remembered by Newcastle fans as the high point of Mike Ashley's miserable tenure as the club owner, and perhaps it was the only opportunity he had to right his wrongdoings at the club.