15:00 KO (BST); Saturday 26th August; St James’ Park (Newcastle, England)
Newcastle are a team that lurched into the Premier League after a drop in form during the second-half of last season. On current evidence, they look to be in danger of lurching near the bottom of the Premier League table for some time to come.
While most of the headlines have centred around Rafael Benitez, the under-performing players have so far avoided the glare of the media. If the lumbering start continues this may not be the case, although hope will be high that they can stumble into a canter when they face another limping United.
Slaven Bilic has been busy trying to cook up a storm this summer after last season’s below-par results left many questions hanging in the East London air. After buying some expensive ingredients, the heat will slowly be increased beneath him if his side continues to struggle to pick up points.
With a high-scoring, narrow defeat last weekend and a confidence-boosting midweek Cup victory, a home game against a fellow-struggling side could either prove to be the perfect tonic or a recipe for disaster.
LAST TIME OUT
NEWCASTLE UNITED 2 – 2 Nottingham Forest [2 – 3 AET] (EFL Cup – Second round)
Newcastle limped out of the EFL Cup at the first time of asking after a predominantly mundane performance from the Magpies. Having made 10 changes to his starting line-up, things started brightly for Newcastle when Aleksandar Mitrovic provided them with a 2nd-minute lead, however, the Premier League outfit were unable to exert any real influence on the game and Forest took up the offered challenge and came out victorious.
One positive for Newcastle was the display of young winger, Rolando Aarons. After several lengthy injuries have blighted his career, Aarons took centre stage at St James’ Park with an assist and scoring the best goal of the night to temporarily level the scores. There was fears that he’d aggravated an injury when he slowly made his way from the pitch in the 77th minute, however, it was later revealed to be cramp and he declared himself fit for this weekend if needed. On this performance, yes, he will be.
Cheltenham Town 0 – 2 WEST HAM UNITED (EFL Cup – Second round)
While only four of the side who were defeated by Southampton made it into the starting eleven for the Hammers, it was a strong team fielded by Bilic nonetheless. A slow start to the game gave way in dramatic fashion when two goals in three minutes gave the Hammers the lead just before the half-time break.
Marking his 34th birthday with his 200th game for the club, James Collins was the main man for the Hammers as they brushed passed Cheltenham and into the third round. Collins was responsible for more than half of the Hammers clearances, with 23 of the 42 defensive actions due to the physically imposing Welshman.
Rather more tellingly, Collins had a game-high 7.8% of the active possession in the match along with defensive midfielder Declan Rice, highlighting the fact that the Hammers played a patient rather than an expansive game.
Rafael Benitez will be without Paul Dummett (hamstring) Florian Lejeune (ankle) and DeAndre Yedlin (hamstring) while Jonjo Shelvey continues his three-game suspension following his red card in the opening game of the season. Dwight Gayle also continues to look doubtful and may only be fit enough to take a place on the bench.
West Ham Lineup
Manuel Lanzini (knee) Andy Carroll (hip) and Michail Antonio (hamstring) are all sidelined for the trip to the North-East, while Marko Arnautovic is suspended for the game following his red card last weekend. Cheikhou Kouyate will be fit for selection after recovering from a knee injury.
Key Battle: Chancel Mbemba vs Michail Antonio
Mbemba was the only player to regain his place in the midweek cup defeat for Newcastle and the fact that he played 120 minutes for the Magpies on Wednesday evening could mean he’s replaced for the visit of West Ham.
With few other options at left-back, the natural centre-back could well be called into action again for Newcastle. While this is likely to see him targeted by the Hammers attacks, he has coped admirably well in every game so far this season but will need to be at his best this weekend as he faces arguably West Ham’s most creative player.
Antonio could be the key to unlocking Newcastle’s and many other Premier League teams defence this season. Having missed months through a serious injury, the English playmaker managed just over an hour against Southampton last weekend.
Playing predominantly down the right wing, he was a constant menace for the Saints, winning 6 of his 9 aerial challenges and recording three shots on target with a fourth going narrowly wide. What was most impressive was his success in each of his four take-ons, something which could worry a makeshift Newcastle defence.
A dangerous game
Newcastle’s chief tactic is to sit deep and allow other teams to attack them with the aim of catching them cold on the break, mainly through the outlet provided down their wings. Without a strong defensive unit, this can be a very risky ploy, especially as switching your playing style to be more creative midway through a game is an incredibly hard trick to pull off.
What has happened in recent weeks has seemingly left some players looking frustrated on the pitch, with Matt Ritchie one such player who looks capable of picking up a card from the referee at any given time.
There’s also the argument that the teams who have succeeded in making the leap into the Premier League have generally been teams with a positive style of play. Bournemouth, Leicester, Southampton and to a degree, Burnley have all made a successful transition playing a more adventurous brand of football. While there’s no hard and fast rule which states that this is the only way to be successful, Benetiz’s tactic does appear to be attempting to do things the hard way.
A broken Hart
West Ham have conceded a Premier League high of Seven goals from their two opening games. While this, like most other early season statistics, is a headline grabbing way to make a cheap point, there’s a much deeper problem hidden beneath.
Joe Hart has now conceded in 22 consecutive club appearances after a loan move to Torino covered him in much less glory than he would’ve hoped for after Guardiola told him they were breaking up last summer. While Hart has still been selected to link up with England for the upcoming friendlies, he’ not expected to be the first or even second choice keeper after a series of blunders have left him looking exposed.
A game against a toothless Newcastle attack could, therefore, be just what he needs to get this monkey off his back and reclaim the form which first made him England’s number one.
PREDICTION: Newcastle United 1 – 3 West Ham United
Both teams have played well in spells of their respective first two Premier League games, but ultimately, they’ve not yet managed to give a full 90-minute performance which is needed to clinch a Premier League win.
West Ham’s players have shown more fight in their losses than Newcastle and for this reason, I think they can go into the away match as slight favourites, and a chance that one goal could lead to many for Bilic’s boys.
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