Newcastle United: Five things Steve McClaren must do to turn the club around

Dare Steve McClaren drop his captain in favour of the re-called Mike Williamson?
Dare Steve McClaren drop his captain in favour of the re-called Mike Williamson?

Alex Keble looks at five changes Steve McClaren must make to avoid the sack and kick start Newcastle's season, including sweeping changes to his line-up and a tactical shift towards more direct football...

"Dropping the club captain would require real bravery from the manager, but it may just save his job."

It must be tough being a Newcastle fan. Having staggered aimlessly through the last three years, it looks increasingly likely that 2015/16 will be the season in which they finally slip out of the Premier League. Optimism was high after some exciting summer signings, but two pieces of news this week have only deepened the sense of imminent decline at St. James' Park: Steve McClaren's job is safe for now, and Mike Ashley is unwilling to invest further in January unless players are sold.

In light of this new information, what must McClaren do to improve his squad's performances and ensure that he is still in a job come Christmas?

1) Be brave in his team selection by dropping regulars and recalling fringe players

Having conceded eight goals in their last two games and 30 in 14 matches this season, McClaren must change his defence - even if that means dropping two of his most high-profile players.

Fabricio Coloccini has recorded a fairly meagre 1.4 tackles and 2.0 interceptions per match this season, and at 33 -years-old increasingly looks too slow for this level. The Argentine has been erratic throughout his career, but whereas in the past he could recover from the occasional error or bizarre charge out of position, he no longer has the speed or agility to dominate a match. Dropping the club captain would require real bravery from the manager, but it may just save his job.

In his place, McClaren could field Mike Williamson - recalled from his loan spell at Wolves on Tuesday. Williamson was deemed surplus to requirements in the summer, but has impressed at Molineux by helping keep three clean sheets in five league games.

Another player that should be recalled is Adam Armstrong, an 18-year-old striker who has scored 13 goals in 16 games on loan at Coventry City this season. As a local, his passion - not to mention his pace and youthful optimism - could be exactly what Newcastle need to kick-start their season; just look at what Duncan Watmore brought to Sunderland last weekend.

Elsewhere, right-back Daryl Janmaat could do with a spell out of the team - his defending has led to numerous goals in recent weeks - and attackers Siem de Jong and Florian Thauvin deserve a chance.

Nine first-team injuries may make McClaren's options limited, but there are players available if he can show bravery - and humility - in his decision making. Given the consistency of his team selections so far, back McClaren to be the next manager to leave his post at 11/10.

2) Close the gap between defence and midfield

The most striking tactical failure at Newcastle is the enormous gap that often appears between the lines of defence and midfield; frequently opponents can be found dribbling easily through the centre and exploiting a zone that is arguably the most important on the pitch. Newcastle have conceded six goals from outside the box this season.

newc goals.png

This was particularly noticeable against Crystal Palace, where the first and third goals resulted directly from a failure to tighten up and close out these gaps. Jack Colback and Vurnon Anita failed to make a single interception.

McClaren is usually a decent tactical organiser, and indeed this gap is largely the result of poor work-rate from midfielders failing to track back, and a nervy defence failing to push up. However, there is one player that could improve the situation...

3) Bring Cheick Tiote back into the team

Cheick Tiote's absence through injury has had a huge effect on Newcastle's fortunes. Over the past three seasons he has averaged 3.0 tackles and 1.7 interceptions per match, controlling from the base of midfield with a power unmatched by his rivals.

Tiote was not particularly influential in his first few comeback games this season, but in his last two before the latest setback - against Bournemouth and Stoke - he made seven tackles as Newcastle kept consecutive clean sheets. It is highly likely that McClaren will start Tiote as often as possible in future, starting with the game against Liverpool this weekend.

4) Be more direct in his approach

McClaren was poached from Derby County on the assumption that he can bring a short-passing, aesthetically pleasing tactical system to St James' Park. Though building from the back has been a feature this season, the system is not working and - while they are stuck in a rut a more direct approach is surely needed.

The first things that suffer when self-esteem is low are technical precision and decision making. Nervously over-thinking, muscle memory is overridden and the short-passing game becomes near-impossible. It is no coincidence that teams using such an approach suffer the longest ruts (think Everton last season).

Newcastle have misplaced 364 passes in their own half this campaign - more than any other team bar Bournemouth -and have taken part in the fewest aerial duels (26.3 per match) in the division. It is surely time that McClaren allows his players to distribute the ball more quickly, and over longer distances, towards the final third.


statszone 28 - Newcastle's passing in their own third against Palace (left) and Leicester (right). Misplaced passes are in red.

They possess excellent dribblers (20.6 per match, 3rd highest in league) that would benefit from receiving the ball quickly on the counter since low tempo build-ups allow the opposition to fall back into formation. What's more, in Aleksandar Mitrovic they possess a powerful target man with superb heading ability (3.0 per match this season).

Given that Jurgen Klopp's tactics are designed specifically to win the ball back in the opponents half, expect Newcastle's poor short-passing to be ruthlessly exploited: back Liverpool to win and over 2.5 goals at 6/4.

5) Work on set-pieces

Newcastle sit 18th in the table for accurate corners (1.6 per game) and bottom of the table for key passes from free-kicks (two in total). They have only scored from one corner.

With confidence low and creativity suffering, set-pieces are a crucial form of attack for any relegation candidate. Mitrovic and Chancel Mbemba are both good in the air, and amongst the likes of Thauvin, Georginio Wijnaldum, and Ayoze Perez there must be a decent corner taker. Spending time on this in training is a must.

It seems unlikely McClaren will be able to turn things around, however, and indeed the above changes may still not be enough to make this team cohesive. Back Newcastle to be relegated at 5/6.

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