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Joselu again costly as Newcastle suffer familiar defeat at Brighton

ANALYST
Feature
149   //    25 Sep 2017, 20:50 IST

Brighton and Hove Albion v Newcastle United - Premier League
Joselu might not exactly be the striker Benitez bargained for

From the moment Newcastle United’s underwhelming transfer activity became public knowledge, the frustrating nature of this season was obvious. The Magpies travelled to Brighton on Sunday afternoon, looking for a fourth straight win in a bid to add further early pressure at the top of the Premier League, but they were undone by a second-half Tomer Hemed goal, succumbing to a 1-0 defeat.

It was a rather harsh reminder of how ruthless a sport football can be, particularly at the highest level. On paper, just as in their away trip to the other newly-promoted side Huddersfield Town, the points were there to be taken; Newcastle had beaten Brighton at the Amex Stadium 2-1 in the Championship last season, but just as winning three from three didn’t guarantee victory, neither did past meetings.

There was a frustrating feeling of déjà vu after August’s clash with the Terriers, which they lost by exactly the same scoreline in much the same fashion.

Talking about defensive organisation makes for stale analysis of Newcastle this season, but that has been a reoccurring theme. For most fans, who are used to watching a side with very little substance at either end of the pitch, there is a lot to grab on to, even in moments such as this where the result is not only disappointing but feels like a missed opportunity.

It was there once again; Ciaran Clark and Jamaal Lascelles marshalled the backline perfectly, while the two midfielders in front of them, Mikel Merino and Isaac Hayden, funnelled Brighton out wide, meaning they struggled to reach the box in the first half. They controlled the pace, too, and although the visitors had much more possession, their chances were the best before the break.

Newcastle recovered from their poor start to the season, losing the first two games, mainly because they began to grow in an attacking sense. Working out how Rafa Benitez is going to set his team up is hardly rocket science; surrender possession, keep it tight at the back and hit teams on the counter attack.

Merino’s intelligence, Christian Atsu’s pace and Matt Ritchie’s guile have made this possible, but the reliance on set pieces, four goals coming from Clark and Lascelles in those three games, has helped hide the real issue, but sooner or later that would come back to haunt them. The time had come on Sunday.

Every team, no matter at what level, should have at least some kind of defensive strength. Defending is the most basic part of football; done well it can take a team far, but not on its own. Goals are not only the most entertaining detail, but the most necessary; they are the difference between first and second, gold and silver, survival or disaster.

Dwight Gayle proved himself in the Championship with 23, but injury problems and doubts over his ability to step up, plus Aleksandar Mitrovic’s issues with consistency and discipline, meant another striker was required in the summer. Joselu was signed from Stoke for £5million late in the window, and it appears Newcastle got what they paid for; a focal point and somebody to play off, but not the killer all-rounder Benitez really wanted.

Because Newcastle sit so deep, and Merino is so quick off the mark with his distribution, they have a lot of space to attack and subsequently look dangerous when getting forward. Joselu missed three great opportunities against his former club last week but was spared by Ritchie’s set-piece delivery and Lascelles’ ability to exploit zonal marking for the second week in succession.

The best chance in the first half fell to his feet from close range after a lucky deflection, but with the goal gaping and Mathew Ryan stranded, he failed to get his bearings and put the ball agonisingly wide. Had that gone in, it would have been a completely different game, but the crucial point is, when Ritchie isn’t on song, particularly with his crossing, Newcastle struggle because they lack an instinct in front of goal.

The last time a player returned from suspension, their previously tailored spot in the team was no longer. Jonjo Shelvey made a difference in the second half when he came on, because Newcastle struggled to break Brighton down after they scored, but he is yet to start since his ban because Merino has been so commanding.

It could easily have been the same story for Joselu as Mitrovic gears up to face Liverpool next week, but after a promising start with a goal against West Ham, so many chances have gone begging that the Serb, who has one goal in 18 Premier League minutes this season, may come back in a lot sooner than Shelvey.

Against Huddersfield, Newcastle started slowly but defended well, grew into the game, missed key chances, conceded just after the break and never recovered. The story was very similar at the Amex Stadium, and neither defeat may have occurred had Newcastle brought in the kind of striker they really needed. Joselu needs support and should not be written off completely, but some doubts are creeping in because this is what so many warned about in the summer.

So early in the season, it is fair to say Newcastle shouldn’t be too disheartened by results like this, especially after three wins in a row. They may still be ahead of schedule in their bid to stave off relegation, but patterns are emerging because of a lack of cutting edge up front. This situation was so avoidable.

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ANALYST
Freelance European football journalist with various websites.
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