This article originally appeared on SpursStatMan.com.
Wednesday night sees Tottenham travel to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne to face a side decimated by injuries and reeling from the departure of their key player. Over the course of the season, Newcastle United have overperformed – given their state of constant off-field upheaval, at least – but the tide seems to have turned on Alan Pardew and company: they have lost three straight home Premier League games, have not scored in six of their last seven and the fans are getting restless.
Despite this, it is difficult to feel entirely confident about Spurs taking three points. Tim Sherwood’s results may look spectacular on paper but his team’s performances on the pitch have been chaotic, rudderless and uniformly uninspiring. If anything, Sunday’s victory at home to Everton was the worst yet – if the visitors had possessed a fit Romelu Lukaku, goodness knows how differently things could have turned out.
Fortunately for Spurs, Newcastle United are in an even worse state than the Toffees. Their captain and best defender Fabricio Coloccini will miss the game, along with key players Mathieu Debuchy, Cheick Tioté and Loïc Rémy. With a gigantic Yohan Cabaye-shaped hole in the middle of their midfield, this will be a patchwork team at best.
That being the case, it is difficult to predict how they will line up against Tottenham and how exactly they will go about winning the game. There are a range of solutions available to Alan Pardew and while his side have often been portrayed as a long-ball outfit, the days of Newcastle being a route one team are behind them, at least for now.
What kind of side they are, though, is difficult to tell: they certainly do not dominate the ball but they are not especially reactive, either; they record a very high number of shots relative to their possession but the vast majority of them are from long range and off-target, so it is not like they are expertly creating good chances; like most Premier League sides, they score very few goals on the counter or from set-pieces.
The plan seems to be to seize on opposition turnovers and swiftly proceed to where the nearest available shooting opportunity will be, whether it be available via a quick passing move, a dribble down either flank or a cross into the striker. Three players – Yohan Cabaye, Loïc Rémy and Hatem Ben Arfa – have averaged more than three shots per game for the Magpies this season. The only Tottenham player to post a similarly prolific figure is Andros Townsend.
With that being the case, the obvious thing to do would be to play a fairly slow-tempo game, controlling the ball, keeping it in Newcastle’s half and patiently waiting for the opportunity to play through their makeshift midfield. Tim Sherwood being the Spurs manager, however, means that a more cavalier approach will be taken. There will be little tactical quality on show but if you like your football frenetic and end-to-end, this will be a good, fun match to watch.
As for the likely Newcastle line-up, the undisputed number one Tim Krul will take his place between the sticks. Krul has a good reputation among Premier League fans and is now a regular call-up in the Dutch national team as backup to Maarten Stekelenburg. He is an able shot-stopper and very assured when it comes to taking high-balls but he can be slow off his line and his decision-making is questionable at times. If isolated one-on-one, any Spurs striker should fancy their chances.
Due to the unavailability of Mathieu Debuchy and Ryan Taylor, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa will continue at right-back, despite being a centre-back by trade. Yanga-Mbiwa’s natural conservatism in his role should all-but neutralise Newcastle’s right flank, meaning that Christian Eriksen’s freedom to drift into the middle will not leave Danny Rose exposed to an overlap.
Davide Santon should return to left-back after his outing in central midfield at Stamford Bridge at the weekend, his quality on and off the ball and natural athleticism posing a stern test to Aaron Lennon.
English duo Steven Taylor and Mike Williamson will make up the central defensive partnership and should scream ‘VULNERABILITY’ to anyone who has seen them play. Both have previously had spells of good form that have seen them linked with England call-ups, but the reality is that they are occasionally competent bottom-half centre-backs. Their partnership is an unfamiliar one and Newcastle keeping a clean sheet in any game with those two at the heart of their defence is unlikely.
In front of the defence, Vurnon Anita and Dan Gosling could make up the double pivot, although what happens in a Cabaye-less midfield is frankly anyone’s guess. Assuming that is the partnership on Wednesday night, Anita will presumably play the disciplined destroyer role, with Gosling the more creative and positionally adventurous. If Spurs’ midfield has any cohesion and structure whatsoever – a big if, admittedly – they should make the middle of the park theirs.
Ahead of them, Moussa Sissoko will do his inconsistent-budget-Yaya-Touré thing, occasionally galloping with the ball through the centre of the pitch and making playing football look like a miraculously simple endeavour, while at others appearing disinterested and passive.
On the right flank, everyone’s favourite highlights player, Hatem Ben Arfa, will spend ninety minutes ignoring his teammates while trying to recreate Diego Maradona’s second goal against England in 1986. That would not be a problem were it not for the fact that he quite often seems capable of actually pulling it off. Danny Rose will have his work cut out for him.
On the left, Twitter’s Sammy Ameobi will try his best to make something out of nothing and ultimately fail. It is clear that he has something approximating talent but he has made very little impression so far during his fledgling career and will probably leave Tyneside when his contract runs out this summer.
Up front, new loan signing Luuk de Jong is looking to get his career back on track after a dismal eighteen months with Borussia Mönchengladbach. The Dutch striker made his name at Twente, filling his boots in the 2011-12 season and catching the attention of every major European club in the process.
While he looked a complete forward in the Eredivisie, his time in the west of Germany has clearly damaged his confidence and unless he rediscovers his form over the next year or two, he will join the ranks of Afonso Alves and Mateja Kežman in the pantheon of Dutch top flight hotshots who never amounted to anything elsewhere.
In Newcastle, de Jong has joined a club that famously idolises its number nines and if he can rediscover his predatory instinct he will find a home for life among the Geordie Republic. They will certainly make chances and Jan Vertonghen and Michael Dawson will have to be aware of his movement.
To reiterate, then, on paper this is a game that Tottenham really should be winning. In terms of momentum as well as collective and individual quality they are by far the better side. If Tim Sherwood can manage to make the midfield function and actually control the game for a change, they will do so with relative ease.