Newcastle United’s back four has been scrutinised all season but the stats don’t back up suggestions they are at the heart of the Magpies’ problems.
Newcastle United’s back four has been scrutinised all season but the stats don’t back up suggestions they are at the heart of the Magpies’ problems. Chief sports writer Mark Douglas heard Mike Williamson’s case for the defence.
UNPICKING Newcastle United’s defence has been a favourite pastime for many this year.
Manchester City did it last weekend; Bordeaux and Fulham had a successful crack at it the week before. So it stands to reason that The Journal shouldn’t find it too difficult to get behind the Magpies back four, doesn’t it?
Only closer scrutiny does not really stand up the theory that Newcastle’s back four has been their Achilles heel this year. Here are a couple of surprising statistics for starters: United have conceded just four more goals this season (26) than they had by the 17-game mark last year (22).
Four goals. It doesn’t seem like a lot, especially when you consider that Newcastle’s back four was considered the bedrock of their success last season – while this year it has been assumed that it is the root of all their problems.
Here is another one: Newcastle keep more clean sheets when Mike Williamson and Fabricio Coloccini play together than they do when Steven Taylor lines up alongside their imperious skipper.
Williamson and Coloccini keep a clean sheet once in every four games they play while Taylor and Coloccini – on average – manage to shut out the opposition once in every five matches.
Granted, Newcastle concede more in between clean sheets when Williamson and Coloccini are together but still, it is food for thought ahead of a January transfer window when defensive reinforcements are at the top of every fan’s Christmas wish list.
And sitting in front of us before a QPR game that Newcastle simply have to win, Williamson mounts a pretty good case for his own defence. Asked whether the criticism of his own form has bothered him, the defender issues a robust rebuttal.
“You look back on games and on mistakes but there is no point dwelling on things like that,” he said.
“It is all about moving forward. I like to think I am a harsh critic and I always try to tweak things where I feel it's needed.
“I am always confident in my own ability that I can carry on playing for this team and that we can keep clean sheets.”
If the goals conceded tally isn’t too different this year, the mood around the club certainly is.
Last year United were concentrating upwards, gazing at a second half of the season that was bursting with possibility. Twelve months on, they are peering nervously at the bottom three amid growing talk of a grim relegation battle. Williamson has noted the change.
“Last season, everyone in the streets would be coming up to us and patting us on the back, stuff like that,” he said.
“Now they are asking us what's gone wrong and when will things turn. But that is going to happen because this is such a passionate city. They live and breathe their football so it's understandable.
“You just have to look at the amount of shirts in the city – that is just the business we are in. They deserve to see a few more better displays from us. The lads now that and we are all working hard to try to put things right and give the fans something to cheer about like we did last year.”
And what of relegation – or struggling at the bottom? “It’s a bit too early to mention that,” Williamson contends. “It’s just a case of trying to get that consistency and get back to the levels we played last year.
“We have definitely upped our game in the last few weeks and have been a bit unfortunate not to get more points.”
So if the stats don’t back up the notion that Newcastle’s problems are entirely loaded on the shoulders of their back four, why is there such a difference in results?
A personal theory is that it is a collection of little things that stack up to something altogether bigger. Ryan Taylor’s injury, for example, has robbed the team of their dead-ball specialist. Indeed free-kicks have been a problem all season, and Williamson admits that he has to do better.
“Set-pieces are a big part of the game these days and we have not capitalised on them enough,” he confessed. “The backroom staff are working hard to create different ways in a bid to get more goals because a goal at a set-piece is kind of a free one.
“We feel that as a team we have not contributed enough through our set plays so that is something we have been working on.
“They went for us last season. When things are going well, you have the momentum, the knockdowns are getting deflected into Papiss' path, for example, but this year the ball seems to hit a defender or they break out and put us under pressure.
“But yeah, we are working on trying to increase our chances of scoring from those situations.”
Perhaps a shade surprisingly, Williamson is also backing the black-and-white recruitment drive that aims to bring in a centre-half in January. “That's the business we're in. There's no point saying anything other than it's competition,” he said.
“The more bodies that come in and the more competition, that breeds a winning mentality in your own camp. when you walk out onto the pitch, it is a healthy thing to have.
“With the amount of games that we've had and are coming up, more bodies would benefit the group.”