Coach’s Corner: Cambridge Shock Newcastle in the FA Cup

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Our resident football coaching expert explains just what went wrong for Newcastle United when they fell to Cambridge in the third round of the FA Cup.

Cambridge United versus Newcastle United in the FA Cup.

Cambridge United caused the biggest shock of the FA Cup Third Round when they beat Newcastle by the odd goal at St. James’s Park.

With both clubs experiencing differing fortunes in their respective league campaigns this season, Newcastle will have been looking at this fixture as a way to get a much-needed positive result under their belt. Meanwhile, Cambridge have experienced a rapid rise over the past two seasons and a good cup run will be seen as a great positive for them as they look to consolidate in League 1.

Newcastle lined up in a 4-3-3, with their wide men pushed up to support the strikers much more than they have done in recent games. Jonjo Shelvey played in a deep-lying role close to the centre backs, while Sant-Maximin, Murphy, and Fraser filled the three attacking positions with the freedom to swap with each other and look for space. New signing Kieran Trippier made his first start at right back, and pushed high up the pitch from the start. He has obviously been brought in for this quality as well as his delivery from set-pieces, so he will be a key player in the run-in for The Toon.

Cambridge United lined up in a similar system, with a 4-5-1 when out of possession and 4-3-3 when attacking. Their three central midfields made a triangle, with two playing deeper than the more advanced May, allowing them to protect their centre backs while also providing cover to the full backs whenever they roamed forward. They looked to get 10 men behind the ball when defending, with a line of 4 and a line of 5 being quickly formed to stifle Newcastle’s attack by not allowing any space in the middle of the pitch.

The Cambridge Game Plan

When in possession they looked to play long balls into the striker, aiming for Ironside to flick on to Knibbs or Brophy. When they did lose the ball, they did not press the Newcastle defence until they reached the halfway line, so they spent much of the game looking to counter.

With Cambridge’s game plan to suffocate the Newcastle attack in the centre of the pitch, Newcastle were able to find pockets of space on the edge of the opposition box but were quickly closed down. With Newcastle unwilling to commit players forward in numbers, Cambridge were relatively comfortable dealing with shots from range and enjoyed a numerical advantage defensively, often 9v5 throughout the first half.

During the first 30 minutes, Cambridge worked much harder than their Premier League opponents, and were happy to get forward in numbers when their long balls fell to them, but also quick to get back. This gave them overloads in both attacking and defensive areas of the pitch, and led to a few decent chances. They also tried to maximise set-pieces and aerial duals, as you would expect, and were quite successful in that area, going close with a free header from a corner. This is particularly concerning for Newcastle, given their players should have known that this would have been a specific danger to watch out for.

Cautious Start for Newcastle

More concerning for Newcastle, however, will be how they started the game. They were way too cautious in the first half, not committing enough players forward and put nervous Cambridge players under pressure. They looked nervous, and although they grew into the game and arguably had the better chances, coming out stronger at the beginning of the game and not letting the Cambridge players settle would have made a huge difference.

When they did attack, Newcastle enjoyed success down the wings because Cambridge resolved to protecting the centre of the pitch, but this often resulted in aimless balls and poor crosses into the box that were easy to clear, especially given the numbers back in defence. They looked most dangerous when they played over the top and in behind the Cambridge back line, which was often not level and almost invited runs looking to break the offside trap. I really couldn’t understand why Newcastle didn’t look to get someone like Shelvey, with his great range of passing, on the ball further up the pitch and look to play the ball in behind the Cambridge defence.

When they did do this, they created some good chances, with about four or five opportunities coming in the first 25 minutes – Sant-Maximin involved in three of them. Instead, they resolved to play down the wing, and as they lost their momentum Cambridge grew into the game. Newcastle were probably lucky not to concede a penalty after 35 minutes when Knibbs got in behind from an Ironside flick-on. However, this was the first time the Cambridge long ball really paid off and after more than half an hour on the pitch the Newcastle defence really should have been prepared for it.

Towards the end of both halves the Cambridge players tired, which allowed Newcastle to find much more time and space inside and on the edge of the box. Newcastle hit the bar at the end of the first half and forced two or three great saves from Cambridge goalkeeper Mitov late in the second half, but realistically relying on the opposition to get tired is not going to help Newcastle’s Premier League plight.

Second Half Started as the First Ended

The second half started off in the same vein as the first, with Newcastle probing the flanks and Cambridge once again playing a solid block in the middle of the pitch. Newcastle’s Murphy did briefly have the ball in the back of the net after latching on to a through ball, but was flagged offside. This was a perfect example of how the Newcastle attack could catch out Cambridge’s back line, and I believe it would have paid off in time, but Newcastle just did not attack the centre of the pitch enough to produce more similar opportunities.

The Cambridge goal actually came after a sustained period of Newcastle pressure, but likely out of frustration they needlessly gave up the ball with a pointless shot from 35 yards out that flew over the bar. From the resulting goal kick, Cambridge managed to win the second ball and come forward, while Newcastle’s back line never get back into position from the initial flick-on. Once the ball is worked into the box, the Newcastle defensive line is all over the place and whether or not Knibbs was offside or fouled Dubravka is irrelevant – he was completely unmarked and allowed to run at goal freely.

Even worse for Newcastle, they looked desperate after conceding; shooting from distance, crossing wildly into the box from all angles, and at no point trying to work the ball and make Cambridge work to defend. There was very little tactical nous from the Newcastle players to try and pull Cambridge out of position, overload against defenders, or isolate players 1v1 against quality players like Sant-Maximin, which is worrying for a team that is also lacking strikers to put away the few chances they will create.

Cambridge United will obviously be delighted with their deserved and hard-fought win, and I am sure they will be looking to use this result to give their league campaign some momentum and consolidate their position in League 1. Newcastle fans, however, will have some cause for concern – not just because of an embarrassing defeat at home to a lower-league side, but more importantly due to their inability to create big chances, and more importantly the nervous disposition of their players – which you only have to assume will get worse when playing Premier League opposition. It will be interesting to see what signings Newcastle make over the next month, but they definitely need to bring in some leaders on the pitch and some of the current squad could do with a break to help shed their fear of the opposition – especially with so many “cup finals” coming up.

As an avid fan and experienced blogger who has coached and participated in a variety of sports from amateur to elite level, Kane offers expert insight into a wide range of issues and events.
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