FA Cup 2019/2020: West Bromwich Albion v Newcastle United – tactical analysis
The FA Cup always serves up a few special matches each round, where two teams of equal quality face off against each other. In a match which is looking increasingly likely to be a Premier League fixture next year, this game between West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle United was just such a tie. This tactical analysis will examine how both teams set up their defence in order to stop the other playing their favoured style of football, which was really intriguing to see. The analysis will also see how Newcastle’s January loan signing Nabil Bentaleb seems to fit into the Magpies’ tactics, looking at his performance in this game.
Newcastle United made six changes to the side that drew with Burnley at the weekend, with some fringe players being given an opportunity to shine at the Hawthorns. Goalkeeper Karl Darlow replaced Martin Dubravka, whilst defender Federico Fernandez, midfielders Matt Ritchie, Isaac Hayden, and Jonjo Shelvey, and striker Dwight Gayle were all withdrawn. In came Fabian Schar, Allan Saint-Maximin, Valentino Lazaro, Sean Longstaff, and Nabil Bentaleb to replace them. Schar, Saint-Maximin, Longstaff, and Bentaleb had been on the bench against Burnley. Out of those who were left out of the starting 11 for this one, Shelvey, Ritchie, and Gayle were on the bench.
For West Bromwich Albion, they made nine changes of their own from the team who lost to Wigan Athletic at home on Saturday. Goalkeeper Sam Johnstone, defenders Semi Ajayi and Ahmed Hegazi, midfielders Jake Livermore and Matheus Pereira, and strikers Hal Robson-Kanu and Callum Robinson were left out altogether, whilst left-back Conor Townsend and midfielder Filip Krovinovic moved to the bench. In came Jonathan Bond into goal; Darnell Furlong, Kyle Bartley, and Kieran Gibbs into defence; Gareth Barry and Chris Brunt into midfield; and Matt Phillips and Kyle Edwards into the forward line.
West Bromwich Albion’s attack
West Brom set up their attack in a way that enabled them to chase after and to press Newcastle’s backline, forcing them into making errors. This worked by one attacker moving forwards towards one defender, then when the ball was passed to another Newcastle defender, another West Brom player went for that player, and so on. In the image below, you can see this illustrated.
What is shown is that West Brom’s attack was working as a unit, all taking a Newcastle player and marking them tightly, ensuring that Newcastle had no space to think about each pass they were making. As mentioned, this led to some errors for the Magpies’ defenders.
Another strategy West Bromwich Albion used was to drag the defence over to one side of the pitch, in order to create space to shoot through. Below, you can see how this worked in the early stages of this FA Cup tie.
These tactics worked by a decoy runner, usually the player in the middle of the box, running to the side, as you can see in the image (this player is circled). A second player (in the square), situated in the wide areas, then ran inside from the wing as indicated by the arrow, and played the ball to the supporting attacker, in this case, Chris Brunt. He made the run into the space created by this tactic and was able to get a shot away.
You can see in the image how, by doing this, the gaps in between the Newcastle defenders have increased, and that was all the West Brom attackers needed. It didn’t lead to any goals for them, but the intent was there, and Newcastle United were caught out quite a few times by this.
Having said all this, credit must be given to Newcastle United for their defending overall. Yes, they were forced into making errors, but ultimately, West Bromwich Albion didn’t score in the first half for a reason.
West Brom generally like to play the ball into the wider channels, and their style of play really relies on their wingers being at the top of their game. This is what we have come to expect from them in the Championship this season. However, against Newcastle United, this was being stifled somewhat, because of the defensive tactics utilised by the Magpies.
Early in the second half, Baggies manager Slaven Bilic made a change that enabled West Bromwich Albion to play with more freedom, and that was to bring on Croatian midfielder Filip Krovinovic. He is a player who likes to play as an all-round central midfielder and can play as a no. 10 or a no. 8, as required. Against Newcastle, he took the 10 role, so was behind the loan striker, Charlie Austin. What he personally did was to look to play through the middle, which meant Newcastle United’s defence was turned inside out a little more, as shown in the image below.
This created much more space and led to more opportunities for West Brom’s attackers. It also enabled West Brom to start using their decoy tactics again, after they had had to end it following Newcastle’s opening first-half goal. Ultimately, the reason that West Brom were able to score twice in the dying stages of the game was because they had this directness in their play that Krovinovic brought to the game because it was something different to what they already had on the pitch.
Another example is shown below.
You can see how Krovinovic has possession in the middle of the pitch, advancing forwards, and is making a run towards the defence. However, to help him, his teammate makes the run to the side as a decoy, which is exactly the same as the Baggies were doing in the first half, notably with Chris Brunt’s opportunity shown earlier in this analysis.
The final thing that West Bromwich Albion did in attack was to force Newcastle to only use the ball on one side of the field. This sounds like an odd thing to say, but it is shown in the image below how they did this.
To explain this, you can see how West Bromwich Albion are positioned so that they can force Newcastle to only use the space indicated by the box. However, Newcastle have no players there to receive the pass, so some of the options for ways that they could get around it are indicated by the arrows. Fabian Schar is positioned on the edge of West Brom’s line and is ready to pass it, but because there are no teammates able to receive it in the space indicated, it is likely that the ball will be intercepted by a West Brom player instead. This constantly made Newcastle overthink everything, leading to more errors in possession.
The bottom line of this point is that Newcastle United often couldn’t make a pass when they wanted to, which was a combination of their poor organisation in getting into the right spaces, and West Brom’s excellent pressing to force them into these situations.
West Bromwich Albion’s defence/Newcastle United’s attack
As far as West Bromwich Albion’s defence was concerned, their tactics were to set up in a narrow structure in order to stop Newcastle United attacking centrally, as they prefer to do. Therefore, keeping the likes of Allan Saint-Maximin and Valentino Lazaro as quiet as possible was going to be in West Brom’s best interests. In the image below, you can see how they went about doing this.
What you can see here is that Newcastle’s wingers, Lazaro and Saint-Maximin, are being kept in wider positions, and not being allowed to cut inside and drive at the central defence. This is because of the compactness of West Brom’s defensive setup. You can see that this is early on in the game, and we will come onto why this went wrong for the Baggies shortly, but initially, it showed that they had done their homework when it came to stopping Newcastle’s attacks.
Joelinton is in the centre of the West Brom defence, but he is isolated because no teammates can get near him. As we know, Joelinton needs support in order to play to the best of his ability, so in this situation, he is not a huge threat to West Brom.
It is interesting to contrast West Bromwich Albion’s defensive tactics with Newcastle United’s, which are shown below.
Newcastle have set up in a wider formation, keeping both wings covered. As previously mentioned, West Brom rely on their wider players in order to play their footballing style, and this is shown by the number of wingers the Baggies have in their squad; Matt Phillips, Kamil Grosicki, Jonathan Leko, Kyle Edwards, Grady Diangana, as well as Rekeem Harper and Matheus Pereira, who can both operate as wingers if needed.
However, this setup didn’t stay like this for too long, and gaps soon appeared, which is exactly what Newcastle United wanted to happen.
Admittedly, this is a counter-attack so defensively, West Brom can’t be blamed for their defensive line, because it hasn’t had time to organise itself properly. What we can see is that Allan Saint-Maximin now has the space to run more centrally than before, and this image is actually showing how the first goal from Miguel Almiron came about. It is almost one error leading to another for West Bromwich Albion, because they first let Saint-Maximin play the ball through the gap in between the defenders, and then, as the arrow shows, Almiron is able to run through the other gap in order to meet the ball and score.
This proved to Newcastle’s players that they could find a way through the West Brom defence, and they began to gain even more confidence going forward. Another way they attacked was by using West Brom’s tactic of creating space to move into.
You can see how the majority of the Baggies’ defenders have been pulled over towards Joelinton, who has the ball, and Almiron has seen this and has held back. The arrow shows his next move, as he waits for the ball to move into the space that has been created, before scoring his second goal.
If you remember at the start of this analysis, how West Brom dragged Newcastle United’s defenders over to one side using a decoy, then you can see the similarity in the tactics then and here.
It wasn’t just in goalscoring situations that West Brom began to be caught out by this. There were other times when it was evident Newcastle saw this tactic as the way to break them down.
West Brom have been caught here with most players on one side of the pitch, and the arrow indicates the pass that is made to create the space for Newcastle to attack into. Lazaro has received the ball and now has a bit of freedom to run towards the West Brom goal, and there is only one defender that is in a position to prevent his advance.
These two different tactics helped Newcastle United to break apart West Brom’s defensive tactics, but there is still one point to make about the Baggies’ defence before we move on.
This image shows how they started to play with more of a counter-attacking style late on in the game, evidently wanting to stop Newcastle’s offensive moves, and prevent any more goals being scored against them. They did this in one particular way. As you can see, they set up in a way where their defence and midfield were either side of the Newcastle forward line. They then pressed together from both sides, and this took away all of Newcastle’s attackers’ thinking time with the ball. This worked to great effect and was the reason why West Brom were in control of the game for the final 15 minutes or so.
Newcastle United have one player that has a key role in their style of play, and that is Nabil Bentaleb. The Algeria international was a January loan signing, and it was noticeable in this game exactly what he was signed to do in the Newcastle team.
As a defensive midfielder, his main job is to protect the back four. This is shown by the image below.
What this demonstrates is that, by positioning himself in these sorts of areas, he draws opposing players towards him. Three of West Brom’s attacking quartet are placed near to him, whilst the fourth is trying to close down the Newcastle player in possession on the nearside wing. This is the defensive role ticked for him.
In this particular image, it can also be noted what the effect this brings on West Brom’s players. Newcastle’s wide defensive structure as well means West Brom have become disjointed in their attack because Bentaleb’s positioning has led to them being unsure of whether to mark him or to support their teammate in closing down the Magpies’ left-back Danny Rose. The Baggies’ main weapon is their attack, so this shows to Newcastle and to other teams that, by having a player carrying out this role, as Bentaleb is, they can ensure West Brom find it very hard to beat them.
As far as attacking goes, he also has a part to play. He acts as a pivot for other players to play off, as shown below.
What you can see is that because of Bentaleb’s ability to make long and short passes equally well, he connects the team up. To explain, if one player finds themselves in trouble, and has nowhere to go with the ball, Bentaleb is the player they can get the ball back to before he then gives it to another player to attack another area.
To do this, he hangs back from the rest of play, in order to feed the ball to wherever it needs to be and enables the rest of his team to conduct their offensive moves much more easily. This is what can be seen in the above image.
To have a player who can perform this role is essential to teams who want to win games and competitions. Leicester City had it with Danny Drinkwater when they won the Premier League back in 2015/2016, so it really is a crucial thing to have. That’s why it has been given some thought in this analysis.
To conclude, Newcastle United will be delighted to have reached the sixth round of the FA Cup, but will know that they had to work hard for the win. They will be delighted that, after sustaining some pressure from the West Brom attack throughout the first and second halves, they came out on top. For the Baggies, they will be aware that this was a match they could have won, and next season, if, or more likely when, they meet in the Premier League, they have shown that they can challenge in matches, and will be a handful for other teams to play against. That is something they will be pleased about for definite.