After more than three years the era of Rafa Benitez came to an end and former Sunderland coach Steve Bruce was appointed as head coach of Newcastle United. Over this season at the Premier League, his philosophy has been reflected in the team becoming much more defensive as we are going to show in this analysis.
In this scout report, we are going to do a deep tactical analysis on Newcastle’s defensive style and how the tactics applied by Steve Bruce are based on defensive compactness and a space-oriented man coverage. This style of defending is reflected in a high stat of PPDA: 17.38 – the opposite to teams such as Liverpool or Southampton with the lowest PPDA of the league.
The main characteristic of Bruce’s defensive philosophy is keeping the defensive compactness, both horizontally and vertically. In the next picture, we can see the compactness of Newcastle with both defensive and midfield lines along the width of the box and at the same time occupying an even shorter length vertically.
To use a defensive compactness effectively, not only should short spaces be kept within your teammates, but also relative to the position of the opponents. In the next picture, we can see the same vertical and horizontal compactness and at the same time short distances to the position of the opponents.
Compactness gives you a spatial control when defensive overloads are applied in certain areas. The short distances between players create a numerical superiority, reducing the passing lanes and giving more defensive access to press the ball carrier. In the next picture, we can see four Newcastle players controlling that wide area, creating a wide overload and at the same time having access to the ball carrier.
This spatial control could be strategically planned to reduce attacking strengths, using the compactness in areas of the pitch that rivals use to create danger. Individual weaknesses can also be reduced, and the Magpies tend to use the wide midfielders’ offensive players with a lack of defensive aptitudes such as Miguel Almirón and Allan Saint-Maximin. Under this structure, these kinds of players are supported by team-mates. In the next picture, we can see Almirón being supported inside and behind.
One of the weaknesses of this style of defending is the threat on switches, being compact on one flank and overloading it, makes switches too dangerous. Against opponents that played comfortably in underloads and which can easily switch and exploit the isolated weak flank, this can create many opportunities for opponents. In the next picture, we can see when the ball is switched to the weak side, the team must quickly give time and space.
Space-oriented man coverage
Whilst this kind of coverage is still under the threshold of man-marking, we can say that this one is a hybrid between man and zone coverage. The Magpies defensively use this kind of coverage to keep the compactness and at the same time be in charge of marking the opponents that enter into their coverage zone with the ball. As we can see in the following sequence, Jonjo Shelvey is pressing the ball carrier on his coverage zone. Once the ball is played to the rival into the coverage zone of Isaac Hayden, he presses the ball receiver entering into a man-marking coverage as we can see in the second picture.
Here we can see another example in the FA Cup game against West Bromwich Albion. First of all, the middle line is compact, in this case with only Sean Longstaff man-marking as the opponent is in ball possession in his coverage zone. Once the ball is passed to the next zone, it is Valentino Lazaro who is in charge of pressing.
This space-oriented man coverage sometimes could involve the centre-mid staying deeper behind the midfield line in the advanced areas marking the rival who entered into his zone. Below, we can see Shelvey playing as swiper man-marking the opponent on the gaps between both lines.
This way of defending also has its owns weaknesses, creating constant threats against teams with a lot of movements in the advanced areas. When opponents’ forwards are followed in this man-coverage by a defender, gaps are left behind that could be easily exploited. In the next picture, we can see Jamal Lascelles following West Bromwich striker who sits deeper and space is left for the second striker to exploit behind the defence.
Allowing build-up in opposing half
When opponents build up, the first aim is to keep the compactness allowing their opponents ball possession, this is the main reason to have a high PPDA figure of 17.38. In the next picture, we can see both strikers passively positioned in the central areas only covering central passing lanes, whilst the rest of the team except for the left-mid are positioned in their half.
Sometimes we have seen Bruce’s strategy be even more defensive, using a defensive line of five players in the Premier League, set in a 5-4-1. In the next picture, we can see Joelinton being the only one positioned on the opposite half allowing Crystal Palace to build up, while the midfield sits in a compact horizontal shape.
This compactness blocking the central areas allows balls to be played wide, once this occurs it triggers the pressing. Wide midfielders are in charge of pressing the full-backs and forcing rivals to go backward. In the next picture, we can see Matt Ritchie had pressed Southampton’s full-back forcing rivals to go backwards and once the ball is in the centre-back’s possession he returned, strikers are shadowing the pass to the centre-mids.
When opponents manage to advance even further on wide areas, the ball enters into the coverage of the full-backs who press higher on the flank. We can see in the next picture that the ball has penetrated the midfield line and Lazaro sped higher to press on the flank.
Rest defence & crosses
Other aspects to highlight from the defensive style of Newcastle is their overloads on rest defence and when defending crosses. In the next picture, we can see a 4 v 2, in which three defenders always stayed deep plus one of the central midfielders positioned under the ball, in this case, Shelvey.
The Magpies only use one full-back when attacking, leaving always three defenders and a central midfielder on the rest defence preventing counter-attacks. We can see in the next picture after a counter-attack of Crystal Palace three defensive players are waiting on their half, and one centre-mid arriving to create a 4 v 2.
The strategy is also overloading the box and reducing the danger if the opposition managed to cross into central areas. As we said before, when Newcastle overload the flanks in their compact defence, they always leave a numerical superiority in the box protecting this area. In the next picture, we can see the overload in the right flank and at the same time a 3 v 2 inside the box.
This could only be achieved by the vertical compactness of the team, which allows more players to arrive at defensive positions supporting teammates and creating more defensive overloads. In the next picture, we can see after a cross there are three defensive players in the small box with three more players giving support.
We have given a detailed description of how Newcastle defensive style works and why under their defensive compactness they concede a high PPDA. Even though nowadays a lot of teams’ strategies are based on pressing and winning the ball as soon as possible, this is an alternative style to be used.
Compactness is an effective tool used by teams such as Atlético Madrid, under the master of defensive compactness, Diego Simeone. At the same time, this style has weaknesses to be exploited by opponents. Newcastle has to improve reducing them if they want to aspire for better outcomes, as they have conceded too many goals against teams on the upper side of the table.