Premier League Sportblog Brighton’s Chris Hughton serves up reminder of lost art of defence In the 1-0 win over Newcastle both managers set up their teams not to lose and, while their organisation was impressive, it was at the cost of attacking flair
Sometimes straightforward virtues are the best. In a Premier League that at times seems to have all but given up anything resembling traditional defending, there was something almost comforting about a clash between two sides who play in such a familiar, unpretentious way. This was a reminder of simpler virtues, a world in which the greatest aspiration is to be compact, and produced a sort of mutually assured self-neutralisation, a game in which flair was all but absent and, where it did exist, confined to a tiny sliver on the flanks. That the one goal came from a set piece was entirely appropriate.
The free-kick that produced the goal five minutes into the second half was in part a result of the Brighton left-back Markus Suttner pushing forward and linking with Tomer Hemed on the left, which always looked the most likely source of a breakthrough for Brighton. There seemed a fairly clear plan from the start to isolate DeAndre Yedlin, the Newcastle right-back, against Solly March. It was the 23-year-old’s cross, after Newcastle had been opened up by a burst from Anthony Knockaert, that led to the Pascal Gross shot that cannoned to safety off Knockaert and then his cross-shot, cutting inside, that drew an awkward sprawling save from Rob Elliot.
In a tight first half, in which both sides were predictably compact and fairly narrow, most of Newcastle’s best openings similarly came down their left, Christian Atsu drifting infield to create chances for both Joselu and Ayoze Pérez. That, perhaps, should not come as too much of a surprise: both Chris Hughton and Rafa Benítez have a clearly defined way of playing that seeks, first and foremost, to maintain discipline and shape. Hughton acknowledged the importance of “solid platforms”.
Only eight players – four from each side – started here who had started the Championship meeting between the clubs at the end of February, when Newcastle rather fortuitously came from behind to win with two late goals, yet the shape of the game was very similar.
From the home side there was a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1, from the away team a 4-2-3-1, both seeking to deny the opposition space, both looking to their left-winger for creativity. Knockaert also had his moments but the organisation of both sides was such that, unless a player beat a couple of opponents, there was no space and the result was a game that flickered without ever quite catching light. Pérez, who might have been able to open the game up, was to all intents starved of possession and so his influence was limited throughout.
But Newcastle are not quite a clone of last season, the change in their approach exemplified by the fact that Jonjo Shelvey has not been able to force his way back into the side after being sent off for treading on Dele Alli’s ankle against Tottenham on the opening weekend of the season. Shelvey was the creative fulcrum last season, his capacity to weight balls over the top for Dwight Gayle to run on to a key feature of the promotion campaign. But with Joselu replacing Gayle as the out-and-out striker, there has been far less need for that type of ball.
Joselu may not be the most clinical finisher but he is an all-round striker and he is certainly not as quick as Gayle. But he is far more adept at holding the ball up and playing with his back to goal, giving Newcastle a more varied approach.
That is the theory anyway but tactical schemes rarely exist in abstract isolation from other considerations and the fact is that Mikel Merino, the Spanish 21-year-old on loan from Borussia Dortmund, is a more reliable figure than Shelvey and probably just a better footballer. Nobody on the pitch attempted more passes than him and nobody had a better pass completion rate.
Shelvey did come on midway through the second half, replacing Isaac Hayden, with Gayle joining him three minutes later, but by then Brighton had bunkered down, sitting deep so there was no space behind the back four for Gayle to exploit. He was such a peripheral figure that he had only two touches in the 20 minutes he was on the pitch. Partnering Shelvey and Merino, perhaps, might be a way of bringing a little more creativity to the midfield, although the risk is a greater openness and less protection for the back four.
Benítez acknowledged it had been a “frustrating” afternoon but it was not particularly different from the games at Huddersfield and Swansea. Both of those matches were tight and hard-fought, lacking much in the way of flow and decided by a single goal. Brighton, similarly, have not conceded more than two in any game since March. Compact, solid, narrow: both sides will have a lot more matches this season settled by a single set play.
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