Newcastle United’s new system: The Graeme Jones effect?

Graeme Jones (left) and Steve Bruce (right) on the touchline for Newcastle United.

On the 27th of January 2021, Newcastle United announced the arrival of Graeme Jones. The Gateshead born coach would join up with the senior coaching staff in a bid to provide a new perspective on the team’s current issues on the field, whilst also adding a more attacking influence from the Newcastle bench. Jones has enjoyed an impressive career as a coach, most notably as assistant manager to Roberto Martínez for over a decade during spells at Wigan Athletic, Everton and the Belgian national side.

The 50 year old joined the club at a potentially crucial point in the season, as after a fairly comfortable start to the campaign (during which the club were admittedly quite fortunate at times), Newcastle had just gone their eleventh straight game without a win in all competitions the day before Jones signed. His appointment seemed rather odd, joining in the middle of the season during a January Transfer Window in which Newcastle had failed to bring in any reinforcements up to that point (going onto leave it to the last minute to bring in young midfielder Joe Willock on loan from Arsenal).

The atmosphere around the club was predictably negative, with fans making their feelings known on social media and with banners on the gates outside the stadium calling for the sacking of manager Steve Bruce. The team looked incapable of scoring, with just two goals from open play in their previous eleven matches, whilst any defensive solidity that the Magpies had relied upon in previous seasons seemed to have dissapated. Meanwhile, a COVID outbreak within the squad had seen key players such as Allan Saint-Maximin, Jamaal Lascelles, Javier Manquillo, Jamal Lewis, Isaac Hayden and Federico Fernandez all battle against the virus for various timeframes ranging from a week to two months.

Steve Bruce’s tactics (or lack of, depending on who you ask), have been vigourously criticised ever since he was appointed as Newcastle boss, so bringing in another coach without sacking Bruce seemed very confusing to many fans. Some even pointed out that should Newcastle improve afterJones’ arrival, it would be a damning assessment of Bruce being unable to get the same level of performamce out of the squad during his 18 months in charge. To an extent, this is what we have seen throughout the first few games with Jones on the Newcastle bench…

Newcastle won their first game in over 6 weeks of football away at Everton, keeping a clean sheet and scoring two at the other end. However, as ever with Newcastle, it seemed one step forward one step back, when they fell to a 2–1 defeat at home to Crystal Palace. A nervy second half saw them hold on to beat Southampton 3–2, and then againNewcastle took another step back with a flat performance that saw them lose 2–0 to Chelsea (ablbeit expectedly).

So, 6/12 points with Jones at the club as I write this, compared to 2/27 from their previous 9 games prior to his arrival. It is very early days for Jones, so perhaps it is unfair to make a fair judgement, with a large number of factors possibly contributing to the two wins in their last four. However, what is very evident, is the change in system, style and mentality in Newcastle’s recent games compared to the 18 months previous under Bruce.

So what has actually changed?

One of the main noticable differences when watching the team is that the system is completely different to anything Newcastle had previously played under Bruce. Bruce has varied his team selection greatly, rarely seeming to stick with the same system for long, often switching between a back four and back five, two strikers and one striker, three central midfielders and two central midfielders etc.

Whilst since Jones’ arrival, Newcastle have stuck with the new system that was introduced during his first game on the touchline. This could be that it was due to Newcastle winning that game, and Bruce not wanting to ‘change a winning formula’, or it could be that consistency in team selection so that the players grow to understamd their roles is an ideology that Jones has brought in.

Steve Bruce would probably argue that he would love to be able to pick the same side week in, week out, and that he has been unable to do so due to unfortunate injuries. Yet every team incurs injuries at some point, and very few see that as a reason to completely change their set up.

Furthermore, when up against stronger sides at the top of the table, Bruce had a tendency to stick five at the back and seemed to have little plan to actually hurt the oppsoition when attacking. Playing defensively against strong sides is not something I disagree with, but if that is the plan, then defensive organisation and solidity is key, and the Magpies have lacked both of those under Bruce. As a result, it was noteworthy that Newcastle didn’t revert to a back five against Chelsea and instead stuck to the same system, and although it didn’t work out on that occasion, it seemed a step in the right direction to an extent.

Here is a rough idea of the system utilised when Newcastle have the ball, since Jones’ arrival:

The team is deployed with a narrow diamond in midfield, with the full backs providing most of the wdith and the two strikers often pulling wide into channels. The attacking midfielder is given the freedom to roam, and can adopt either a centre forward or number 10 role at different stages throughout the game.

This system allows more players to commit to attacks, as it gives the full backs the space to get forward, whilst the team is almost playing with a front three at times. In addition, the box to box midfielder is given a licence to join the attack and the playmaking midfielder can try to influence the game from deeper areas.

This approach has proven more effective in attack than those previous to it thus far, primarily due to the supply lines and support that it offers to the forwards, whereas previously the strikers in the team had been left isolated, with teammates unable to offer sufficient options to the man in possession. That’s not to say that the current system has proved faultless, but it initially appears to be a vast improvement on its predecessors.

Defensively, once again this system is more positive and aggressive, looking to take the fight to the opposition rather than adopt the sitting deep and being passive mentality that has been utilised frequently over the last couple of years. The lack of defensive organisation in the sitting deep approach meant that it was not effective and too often allowed the opposition to create chances.

Here’s how the system works when Newcastle are defending:

The system looks to press higher up the pitch than previously (granted it would have been impossible to sit any deeper), whilst crowding central areas in an attempt to deny the opposition midfielders any time or space. The attacking midfielder often joins the two strikers to form a front three when pressing, whilst the three central midfielders must work hard to close the gaps and provide the second wave of the press.

The main issue with this formation is that it does allow a lot of space out wide for the opposition, the opposing full backs often seem to have the freedom of the park to get forward, as the front three don’t track them and the central midfielders can be slow to get out and provide defensive support in wide areas. This leads to overloads out wide, with the opposition wingers and full backs being in a 2v1 situation with the Newcastle full backs.

Furthermore, a frequent issue for teams that press a bit higher is that if that press is bypassesed, it can leave the team very exposed and stretched, and as the members of the current squad are not well drilled in pressing, having sat off for so long, gaps do often appear for the opposition to exploit.

This system does have weaknesses defensively, as does every system, but it could well be a worthy sacrifice should Newcastle be able to score more going the other way. It is important that the team selection retains some sort of consistency even if the team incurs losses to the likes of Chelsea.

One of the biggest challenges facing the Newcastle coaching staff at the moment is forcing a shift in mentality in the squad. The team will have likely become very accustomed to quite a negative, defensive and passive style of football, and so if the decision has been made to change the way in which the team approaches games tactically, the mentality of the squad must also be adjusted.

One of the main points of critcism levied at Bruce is the negative style of football, which you can often get away with should the defending be solid and points continue to be added, but when both of those thing stop it really does leave the tactics exposed to criticism (rightfully so!). Therefore, there was almost a sigh of relief when Newcastle approached the games against Everton and Southampton in particular with a much more positive mindset, looking to take the game to the opposition rather than sitting back and almost waiting to concede.

The mentality of the squad is going to be hugely tested over the coming months as Newcastle fight for survival in the Premier League, and it falls on the shoulders of the coaching staff to ensure that everyone buys into the new system, whilst it is the responsibility of the players to ensure they demonstrate enough commitment and tactical understanding to follow through on the intructions they are given by the likes of Jones.

Conclusion

It is very early days in Jones’ career as a coach at Newcastle United, but he doesn’t have a lot of time to settle in. Despite the wins against Everton and Southampton, Newcastle find themselves firmly in a relegation battle thanks to that two points from a possible 27 run over the Christmas period.

The medium to long term injuries recently sustained by Callum Wilson, Fabian Schär and Javier Manquillo have left Newcastle short of a goalscorer and adequate right back, but hopefully Newcastle can pick up points in their absence and then kick on towards the end of the season with the return of top goalscorer Wilson.

Of course it is entirely plausible that I am giving too much credit to Jones’ influence upon the team, with factors such as the return of the talismanic Saint-Maximin also important to note, however, the shift in tactics and ideology would indicate that Jones has had an impact, and hopefully the longer he has with the squad the better they can become.

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