It might well be that Newcastle United’s home form keeps them from relegation, but the Magpies’ away record could just as easily send them down.
Week in, week out, chances are going begging for Newcastle – something that will hopefully be resolved by a new signing – but another defeat at Watford highlighted two major issues United have yet to get to grips with.
Away from St James’ Park, Gini Wijnaldum is struggling, and Steve McClaren continues to flounder in his attempts to counteract his side’s not-so-gracious hosts. A combination of these problems led to this loss.
Along with Jonjo Shelvey and Aleksandar Mitrovic, Wijnaldum was influential in beating West Ham United last weekend, but while the other two were equally unspectacular at Vicarage Road, this is becoming a running theme for the Dutchman.
Wijnaldum is the key difference-maker in this Newcastle team. He’s the club’s top scorer and has netted in each of their home victories. However, having only scored for the Magpies within the confines of NE1, his anonymity on his travels has let United down. In some respects, this performance was an improvement on Wijnaldum’s previous two away showings in 2016, where he missed a crucial opportunity at Arsenal and then gifted Watford a winner in the FA Cup. Here, back at the scene of that latter crime, the former PSV Eindhoven captain simply never got going.
The 25-year-old is the most talented member of McClaren’s squad and has shown as much on numerous occasions this season, but for whatever reason he has not replicated his home form on the road. As previously with Yohan Cabaye, Newcastle play through Wijnaldum and often win when he sparkles. The Frenchman, though, inspired victories at Manchester United, Crystal Palace and West Ham in his final months as a Magpie; McClaren must now coax the same from his £14.5 million man.
For this reverse, however, the one-time England manager must also take a portion of the blame. Wijnaldum was poor, but his display owed an awful lot to another bizarre formation.
As in the cup, McClaren sought to cancel out the Hornets’ threat with a three-man defence. As in the cup, he failed miserably. No matter how many times United bosses trial a back three, it never looks a comfortable fit. Alan Pardew tasted defeat at Stoke City, twice, and Liverpool with a similar system, and even Sir Bobby Robson couldn’t suppress Tottenham Hotspur’s Gus Poyet with a man-marking job way back in 2001.
Much of the focus in such a set-up may centre on how defenders and wingers cope with their adjusted roles, but at Watford it was Wijnaldum who was shunted away from his thriving post in the middle to allow for this change. The Netherlands international couldn’t get involved, Mitrovic lacked support, and Newcastle’s back-line was again cut to ribbons. Another long journey home with nothing to show for it; another tactical disaster.
McClaren couldn’t help the circumstances that left him without a regular left-back, but at a time when he needed to shake Wijnaldum into life, this switch certainly wasn’t the answer.
The prior Vicarage Road surrender and subsequent cup exit now hands the Magpies a weekend off. With just over a week until Everton, the head coach and his team need to get the interested signed, the injured fit and the indifferent firing.