I love Newcastle. It’s a great place to be for a weekend. There’s plenty to do and see, it has an exuberant nightlife and the people are generally very friendly – unless you’re a horse of course. Wedded to the fact I have strong familial connections to the region and you have the potential for a dream weekend.
The last time I was in attendance for a Wolves game I still managed to enjoy myself wholeheartedly, despite us losing 4-1. The same day India won the Cricket World Cup and the Geordies couldn’t have been more hospitable to a group of Indians from Wolverhampton in celebration. Naturally, we look to return at every opportunity and we travelled en masse up to Geordie-land for a weekend of fun and festivities centred around the game.
Saturday night was a pretty wild affair – of course – and we made our way to St James’ Park nursing our hangovers, expecting a pretty timid game in all honesty. Rafa Benitez is a master at sucking the life out of games if it is his wont to do so. He has regularly used the lack of investment in his squad as an excuse to set Newcastle up in this way and many would consider his upkeep of what many say is a Championship-level squad a minor miracle. I still remember his promotion-winning Championship side coming to a lower to mid table Wolves under Paul Lambert, sitting back and snatching a 1-0 win with a scrappy set piece. This is not a man who overly appreciates the aesthetics of a football match. Results are his business.
Coupled with the fact we haven’t really been at the races for a while and you had the makings for quite a drab affair. But while overall quality wasn’t in too much evidence, this was an entertaining game with plenty of talking points, the first of which was the team selection. The rumour mill was rife with murmurs of impending changes, which was totally out of step with the way Nuno has managed his squad this season. Perhaps the biggest decision was dropping Morgan Gibbs-White, who has become a media darling in recent weeks. Also Raul Jimenez, a talismanic figure so far this season also made way for the frustrating Adama Traore, a theme which continued in this fixture.
It was certainly a threatening, pacy looking front three but it was difficult to see a real focal point for attacks. Newcastle also decided to match us up by playing wing-backs, another example of Benitez thinking first and foremost of stifling the opposition. We started well though, Traore turning his man and driving towards goal, except his gears seemed to crunch and he failed to accelerate away from him. Oh to be inside his head for a game. What is most definitely apparent now is that Diogo Jota is getting back to somewhere near the form of last season.
He was involved in all three of the major incidents in the game, taking his goal really well, inducing a mistake from DeAndre Yedlin and driving at goal for Doherty’s winner. Diogo may not be the most refined of our forwards, but he’s the most tenacious and dogged and when he’s got the eye of the tiger he is a fearsome prospect for any defence. He’s got the bit between his teeth now and if defences are going to afford him the space that Newcastle afforded him for the first goal then he’ll get plenty more goals. A nod to Helder Costa finally clocking an assist too, meaning all of our forwards have now registered in the Goal or Assist columns this season.
There was no assumption that we would go on to control the game then, with a relatively toothless Newcastle attack to keep at bay. But while Salomon Rondon isn’t a blue-chip goalscorer, he’s a wily operator who can make things happen. There was a naivety about the way Wolves defended him, constantly being drawn into giving away free kicks, from which Newcastle subsequently profited. There’s not too much to be said about the defending for the goal. We were at panic stations having seen the ball crash off the underside of the bar and down, before recovering slightly. If anything could have been done it was perhaps stopping the cross but it was an excellent flicked header from Ayoze Perez.
From thereon we suffered from not having a reference point up front. Time and again Traore turned, drove and lost the ball. Costa was powderpuff in the challenge and showed little desire to keep hold of the ball. Jota tried manfully but he couldn’t keep it up on his own. Rondon was becoming more of an influence, but the game went through a spell of drift, with neither team really able to fashion a decent chance. Then, just as Nuno had turned to the bench to change things, the key turning point of the second half happened. Jota’s turn of pace over 5 yards often takes people by surprise – think Jagielka in the first game of the season and he forced Yedlin into an error which would prove extremely costly. A clear goalscoring opportunity was denied and the correct call made.
This actually seemed to play into Benitez’s hands. He went into full ‘turtle’ mode, leaving Rondon isolated up front with a brief to win as many free kicks as possible. The game became a turgid, frustrating affair with Mike Dean becoming an even greater part of the action. Our naivety was to constantly try and nick the ball off Rondon in areas of the pitch which were entirely safe. He’s a hulk of a man and he used his body effectively to get his team plenty of respite. Thankfully, Benitez thought Joselu may be able to come on and do the same job, of which he clearly wasn’t capable.
The other key change was bringing on Joao Moutinho. Watching him run his little legs off against Chelsea in midweek, it was easy to forget what a class act he is. He didn’t really get too much ball possession to show his capabilities in midweek but he was brought on here to be incisive, move the ball quicker and create imbalances in the Newcastle defence. Until this point, Newcastle’s ten men had had it far too easy with pedestrian passing and a lack of incision. Despite what people may think, chances came our way. Jimenez hitting the bar, one break was foiled by a Jota stray pass going through to the goalkeeper. Matt Doherty had a curling shot tipped away. We were still in the ascendancy although our lack of cutting edge was a source of frustration for all in the away end. The result was there for the taking.
How often do you see teams chasing a result, going into injury time, knowing that they’ll get ‘one more big chance’? It’s a strange footballing quirk that this almost always seems to happen. They might not always be converted, but more often than not the ball will drop to a player in a good position who just needs to apply the correct finish. These goals are rarely works of art, but could speculative shots, something off a set piece or as we saw here, just a man being in the right place at the right time. Matt Doherty has been Johnny-On-The-Spot once already this season with the winner against Crystal Palace and he’s becoming something of a cult hero with his important interventions. Diogo Jota’s tenacity and drive made it happen but Doherty’s indefatigability is astonishing, especially in the wake of last season’s marathon campaign. This, a man who was written off after an unfortunate performance against Leicester City, a man who has improved year-on-year exponentially and who is having his best season yet.
And suddenly, all is rosy in the garden once more. 10th place, 22 points after 16 games. Already more wins than our last ill-fated spell at this level. What interests me now is Nuno’s penchant for changing his side. We were quite obviously below par here and players like Helder Costa look like they could do with a spell out of the team. Bournemouth will be an interesting proposition next week.