Newcastle United Got Tactics Perfect in Europa League Match Against Atromitos FC
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Manchester City's Shiekh Mansour recently said that when his team's games aren't televised or he's unable to attend, he finds "other ways" to watch them.
Reading that gave me the rather amusing mental image of the dignified billionaire huddled up in a dark room watching a dodgy, pixelated stream on a small computer screen.
That may or may not have been what I looked like as Newcastle United broke a five-year drought when they faced Atromitos FC in the first leg for the Europa League qualifier.
I had more than 7,000 words worth of assignments due within 12 hours of the game, and since the kick-off was at the convenient time of 5am, I was doing my third all-nighter in four days.
But I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the club's return to European football, considering it was a reasonably flat 1-1 draw (if you're yet to see the game you probably shouldn't have read that last sentence. My apologies).
What stood out for me was the way Alan Pardew executed his tactics to absolute perfection. Here's why:
Going into the game, the league fixture against Chelsea was always going to be the biggest priority. There's no point in fielding the top possible team, winning 6-0 and then getting trounced at Stamford Bridge two days later.
Even if they lost the fixture by a goal or two, that wouldn't be a serious problem with the return leg at St James's Park still to come (I'd call the ground by its official name, but I've already been put on notice for swearing too much).
So it turns out, the game was Atromitos's first competitive fixture of the season, so they were always going to be slightly rusty anyway.
Injuries kept Chieck Tiote, Fabricio Coloccini and Demba Ba on Tyneside, so if they can come back for the Chelsea fixture they won't have suffered after flying to Athens and tolerating the heat.
In case you missed it, here's the team Pardew started:
Steve Harper; James Tavernier, Mike Williamson, James Perch, Ryan Taylor; Dan Gosling, Gael Bigirimana, Vurnon Anita; Gabriel Obertan, Sylvain Marveaux, Papiss Cisse.
This was the first look at Bigirimana fans would get, Tavernier was still fresh from filling up the club's trophy cabinet at the prestigious Hong Kong Soccer Sevens tournament and Ryan Taylor is famous for having bailed United out more times than you've had hot dinners.
Essentially, the team was strong enough to win, but rotated well enough to let the stars do their thing on Saturday night without being too exhausted.
The outing was a great way for Tavernier and Bigirmana to get competitive experience, while Williamson, Taylor, Anita, Gosling, Obertan and Marveaux were able to play several minutes and upkeep match fitness.
I'd compare Pardew's approach to this one to the way Barcelona regularly play, but that implies they wanted to go for the jugular and score lots of goals. So I'll compare them to the Spanish national team.
At 38 degrees (Celsius, I hasten to add), the threat of over-exertion was a very real problem so the issue became how to control the game without running out of steam and imploding at the end of the game.
This is where the influence of La Furia Roja showed. Bigirimana stayed reasonably deep and the short passing game was the order of the day, especially among the back four.
This is known among FIFA 12 players as "a-hacking", it's the most annoying thing in the world to face, and it works. Obviously if you have the ball, the other side isn't on attack and they tend to get tired after chasing the ball. Why did you think Spain were able to hit Italy hard at the end of the Euro 2012 final?
Newcastle did well to control possession, while Marveaux and Obertan helped to provide a direct threat if needed. Neither are Hatem Ben Arfa, but who is?
Atromitos' main plan on attack revolved around hiking the ball to Njazi Kuqi (brother of Newcastle legend Shefki) and putting long balls behind Tavernier for Dennis Epstein to run onto.
Williamson and Perch kept Kuqi quiet for most of the game, and while Tavernier was caught out of position a fair bit, he will have learned from the experience and Steve Harper was usually able to help out when things got ugly down that wing.
Subs and strikers
Ok, this may have been the coffee combined with the lack of sleep, but at half time I had an epiphany about just how masterful Pardew's use of strikers was.
I may get labelled a closet mackem for saying this, but Papiss Cisse is out of form. When he came to Tyneside he scored reasonably quickly, his confidence soared and consequently he was able to score goals that defied every law known to physics (and probably some that aren't).
But cast your mind back to the 2-0 loss to Manchester City, and ask yourself what he was doing in that game. The answer is that he was being dominated by Vincent Kompany.
There's no shame in that, because Kompany is a beast. But Cisse's form has dipped since that game, and he will be disappointing Fantasy managers until he starts scoring again.
That was why he had to start against Atromitos. The best thing that can happen to him during his dry patch is that he is given plenty of game time. Had he scored, there's a good chance the Senegalese striker's confidence will have returned for the game against Chelsea.
He was pulled so young prodigy Adam Campbell could come on and break Andy Carroll's record of being the youngest player to come on in a European competition. Yes, Campbell is a Geordie. Read into that what you will.
Campbell comes highly rated, with the zippy striker drawing comparisons to a young Michael Owen. Hopefully he isn't too much like Owen.
While I'm probably the only self-respecting sports writer who would call him "zippy", bringing him on late for Cisse was the best thing Pardew could do. Under the Greek sun, the game was fairly sluggish so his pace was a tremendous asset to inject against tiring defenders.
Romain Amalfitano made his debut when he came on for Dan Gosling in the 74th minute. He added fresh legs to the midfield and came close to scoring himself.
Jonas Gutierrez may have been brought on too early when he directly replaced Marveaux in the 71st minute, but he was a great player to have come on.
Should Newcastle be happy with a draw?
The purpose of this game was nullification, not dominance. The best result they could have achieved was to balance removing Atromitos's home advantage with arriving in London with all guns loaded.
While a draw isn't an ideal result, the away goal gives United a clear advantage. Atromitos keeper Charles Itandje didn't look particularly confident, so there's no reason the English club can't score at home.
Imagine if one or two of the starting XI are used in the return leg. You'd back United to win comfortably and still have enough energy left to be competitive against Aston Villa.
As it is, they will head back to St James's Park as strong favourites, and you can expect a strong showing against Chelsea with a similar team to the one that beat Tottenham Hotspur last week.
If you enjoyed this, why not have a read of Stadium Journey's review of St James's Park.
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