Talking Tactics Header
What happens when plan A is being suppressed? Why, you revert to plan B of course. Ah, but what if there is no discernible plan B? Well, inevitably, it's likely to go a bit wrong.
And so it proved for Sunderland on Saturday. Welcoming (in the loosest sense of the word) their neighbours from across the Tyne, the Black Cats started brightly before fading into ever worsening forms of desperation, ultimately finishing the game with just ten men, and a 0-1 defeat.
Steve Bruce kept faith with the same starting eleven that opened the season at Liverpool a week ago, but this time in a much clearer 4-4-1-1 system, with Stephane Sessegnon undoubtedly playing behind rather than alongside Asamoah Gyan.
Meanwhile Bruce's opposite number, Alan Pardew, packed the midfield in with a 4-5-1 formation. Their sole change from their own season opener against Arsenal was the replacement of Demba Ba with fellow new signing Gabriel Obertan. Obertan took up a berth on the right wing, leaving Shola Ameobi to fend for himself up front.
To the spoilers, goes the victory
Newcastle's victory was the result of an archetypal away performance. The black and whites came to the Stadium of Light with little intention of encouraging a free-flowing attacking game, instead seeking to break up the game with as much frequency as possible, and hope to nick something from a set-piece.
For the opening half hour or so, it seemed Pardew's plan was doomed for failure. Sunderland were frenetic, controlling possession and regularly getting to the byline.
But for all their dominance, they lacked any kind of cutting edge. Opposing goalkeeper Tim Krul was only tested twice, and both of these were long range efforts from Sessegnon, while Gyan clipped the top of the crossbar on the stroke of half time.
In the early stages, Newcastle's ball retention was poor (with the normally excellent Cheik Tiote particularly wasteful, conceding possession with 5 of his first 9 attempted passes) and they found themselves under severe pressure.
What followed was not so much a tactical change as a mental one. Sunderland, well aware of their horrendous form in derbies over recent years, seemed to suddenly relieve themselves of any kind of belief. Both in the stands and on the pitch, the Black Cats demeanour turned from one of commanding confidence to outright nervousness.
This, unsurprisingly, played right into the visitors' hands. With the home side resorting to what is seemingly Steve Bruce's only semblance of a 'plan B', that of hoofing aimless long balls at Asamoah Gyan and expecting him to work wonders, Newcastle were able to break the game down and stifle any of the red and whites' early momentum.
With Gyan not playing particularly well, and Ahmed Elmohamady especially unremarkable on the right, the Magpies slowly but surely put their plan into action. The statistic of 16 interceptions (as opposed to Sunderland's paltry 5) is a clear indicator of how the visitors sought to plug any gaps in defence first and foremost, before even thinking about attacking.
As a result, and as stated, their main hope of nicking something was from a set piece. This was clear to even the most inexperienced of observers, and yet still Sunderland persisted in giving away needless free-kicks near their own penalty area.
Sure enough, Newcastle eventually converted one of them. Ryan Taylor's outrageous free-kick was only the third time thus far that Simon Mignolet had been called upon to stop an effort on goal, and the Belgian found himself woefully out of position. A good four yards off his goal-line, Mignolet allowed the Taylor plenty of room to get the ball up and down; the makeshift Newcastle left-back promptly did just that, with what proved to be the game's only goal.
Star man: Fabricio Colloccini
Just as Wes Brown's rock solid performance at centre back propelled Sunderland towards an unlikely draw at Anfield, so did Fabricio Colloccini's imperious defensive display build the foundations for Newcastle's victory on Saturday.
After a poor first season in England, Colloccini has now evolved into one of the league's more consistent performers, and he proved this admirably at the weekend.
Allowing Asamoah Gyan barely a sniff, the Argentinian cleared up everything Sunderland had to throw at him; though their reversion to long ball tactics certainly played into his hands.
Successful with over 50% of his tackles and contributing 11 clearances (more than a quarter of his team's total), Colloccini ensured that his goalkeeper was restricted to stopping speculative efforts from long-range, whilst also providing a solid base which allowed the visitors' central midfield trio to eventually put their mark on the game.
This was a bitterly disappointing result for Sunderland who, again, looked better on paper that their closest rivals.
And yet, it was entirely predictable. Newcastle's gameplan worked to a tee, but it must be said that Steve Bruce was far too slow in making changes. Even before half-time it became evident that Sunderland were running short on ideas; the Magpies had tightened up, and the home side no longer found any joy down the flanks.
It took until the 71st minute for the ineffective Elmohamady to be hauled off, whilst Bruce's decision to take off Seb Larsson, and thus the only man capable of causing any discernible threat from set-pieces, seemed entirely non-sensical.
Furthermore, the sudden change from control to nervousness was deeply worrying. In a flash, Sunderland's impressive start changed into tactics of Sunday League proportions, hoofing the ball aimlessly and hoping it would fall right at least once. All it did was make the visiting side's task considerably easier.
Newcastle must be given credit for their own showing, however negative their tactics were. In addition to breaking the match up and playing the percentage game of hoping for something from set pieces, they also tightened considerably on Stephane Sessegnon after the break. This meant that Sunderland's only real threat was nullified, and the Black Cats never really looked like scoring from thereon in.
Sunderland now travel to Swansea, needing a win to kick start their season. The worry is, if things don't go accordingly early on, Bruce's complete lack of a cogent back-up plan could rear its head once more.