The fixture list has been kind.
When you lose an unbeaten run, and lose it the way we did at Anfield, you want something less complicated next time around. A home game against the bottom of the table team is pretty much the best you can hope for.
Which is to take nothing for granted, that would be hubristic and stupid. Newcastle might be going through a difficult time, but assuming that league positions will guarantee anything would be arrogant in the extreme. We sit in 5th, they’re bottom, but they have scored more goals in the Premier League than we have this season. They have some good attacking options who can cause us problems, and we’d better be well prepared for them as we face a team that knows it’s already fighting for survival. That will inform everything they do and how they do it.
However, after that ten game run, and some performances that were quite encouraging, anything less than three points today would be hugely disappointing. Suffering a setback is one thing, and losing at Liverpool isn’t the most unexpected way to experience that, but it’s always been about how we respond. Today, there’s also the question about who exactly we respond with, as I think we could see some changes. The manager spoke about the potential for rotation, saying:
The minutes and the performance level of the individuals and the impact that you can have off the bench, the moment you want to change the team, the alternatives that you need because normally in this period injuries start to come, suspensions, we already have a few players close to that, so everybody has to be ready because it’s going to be key, the contribution that they can make to sustain the level and results.
Today, I reckon we’ll see Kieran Tierney come back in for Nuno Tavares. And if we stick with the same formation we’ve deployed of late, I think there’s a decision to be made about who partners Thomas Partey. Albert Sambi Lokonga had a good first half against Liverpool in my opinion, but it fell apart completely in the second. Leaving him out wouldn’t be punishment, or anything like that, but if it were Ainsley Maitland-Niles today, you could understand why.
Ahead of them, I’d like to see Martin Odegaard start ahead of Alexandre Lacazette. I explained this during the week, and today, when we face a team that is going to sit deep in solid defensive blocks, his ability on the ball gives us a better chance to unlock the Newcastle defence. It also leave us with an experienced goalscoring option on the bench should we need it. Beyond that, I don’t see much in the way of change, unless we see a change of system.
There were games when we played Partey as the deepest midfielder, with two 8s ahead of him, which allowed us to get another attacking player on the pitch. For a home game against a struggling side, it must be tempting, with Odegaard and Smith Rowe more central, and perhaps Nicolas Pepe or even Gabriel Martinelli on the left hand side. I don’t necessarily expect it because it wasn’t always convincing, but I wouldn’t rule it out.
Whatever way we set up though, I hope we can be convincing as an attacking force. The bright starts in some recent fixtures have been very effective, and you can’t argue with those results. Making more of the advantages it gave us would be pleasing though. Don’t simply sit off and protect the lead, use the opposition’s need to get forward to exploit the space they have to leave behind, and score more goals. I know that sounds overly-simplistic. Results have been good of late and points are the single most important thing, but cold, hard stats show a team which is barely scoring at a goal per game and with a negative goal difference so there’s a need to address that.
The other thing about this weekend’s fixture list is that West Ham, currently three points ahead of us, travel to Man City and could easily drop points, while Man Utd go to top of the table Chelsea. A win for us would draw us level with the former, and put us 6 points ahead of the latter if they lose at Stamford Bridge. There are moments in a season when you have to maximise the opportunities presented to you, and this is one of them – not least because we go to Old Trafford on Thursday. United have been a shambles this season, but I don’t expect that to be the case for much longer with the new appointment and with the sheer depth of attacking quality they have in their squad.
So, let’s do what we need to do today, don’t let this pass us by, then see how the rest of it plays out. It has the potential to be a good weekend, but the onus is 100% on us to take three points later today.
Catch you later for the game.