Newcastle United always have some key things going for them. They have one of the best kits in the league, excellent fan support, and a genuinely cool stadium. Unfortunately, those don’t necessarily translate to success on the pitch and in that respect the team are in a bit of a rough spot.
Manchester City visit St. James’ Park with the Magpies just two points above the drop zone, and even that precarious position is courtesy of a critical win against fellow strugglers Cardiff City in their most recent Premier League match. Mike Ashley is Mike Ashley, so looking to the transfer market as a potential way out is probably a waste of time.
Still, it’s more the sales of players they’ve had rather than a lack of arrivals that have brought them to this point. As a reminder, they had both Dwight Gayle (the whole season) and Alexsander Mitrovic (for a brief second) on the books last season; the pair combined have more goals in 2018/19 than Newcastle do as a team.
A look at Newcastle’s xG (expected goal) timeline highlights their glaring deficiency in attack. I hope it’s not a surprise to most readers that averaging less than 1.0 xG per game is probably not going to translate into a lot of wins.
Part of this is personnel, obviously, but I don’t think you can say Benitez is faultless either given his particularly defensive style of play. Newcastle usually sit very deep, averaging the lowest share of possession of non-Welsh teams in the Premier League. That makes it difficult to consistently generate solid attacks, even if Salomon Rondon and Joselu are generally pretty good at hold-up play.
Newcastle vs Manchester City: Midfield mismatch
Benitez has never played their two best central midfielders per Twelve’s algorithm, Jonjo Shelvey and Ki Sung-Yeung, together once this season. Now both are injured, along with the previously ever-present Mohamed Diame, so the cobbled together midfield of Isaac Hayden and Sean Longstaff await David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, and company.
I’m hopeful this is the game where De Bruyne really breaks out. In his limited Premier League minutes so far, his shots, key passes and dribbles are all down pretty significantly from last season on a per minute basis. That said, in the past few cup games he’s looked back to his best, particularly against Burnley where he had a goal, an assist, and forced an own goal.
Even if he does not though, I’m struggling to see a way City don’t win this game. Though the scoreline was close at the Etihad, xG (and simple shot count) paints a different picture, as does the fact that Newcastle haven’t taken a point off the top six this season.
Newcastle will probably line up with a five man defense again, as they have in their past few games and did against City earlier in the season. It will be interesting to see if Pep repeats what he did in the reverse fixture and play both Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero up top.
Combined with playing two wingers in Mahrez and Sterling, that formation (used just this once this season if I recall correctly) really helped pin Newcastle back and allow dangerous counterattacks with four men right on Newcastle’s defensive line when the ball changed hands in midfield.
Given they were rested for the Burnley game at the weekend, I’d expect to see Sané and Sterling start. Sterling in particular could be in for a good day up against Matt Ritchie, who is both not a left-back and nowhere near fast enough to keep up with him.
More broadly, I think Newcastle as a team will struggle to keep up with City. If Newcastle are going to spring a surprise at the end of the transfer window, let’s just say I don’t think it will be with a victory here.