Premier League

Embracing Route One helping Rafa get results

 • by Mark Thompson
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Newcastle United only scored four goals in their first seven Premier League matches. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t win any of these games either. But, since the start of October, things have started to change.

Two goals against Manchester United and then, a month later, the first of three wins in a row. Suddenly, the Magpies were out of the relegation zone and into fourteenth.

It hasn’t necessarily been through any sophisticated means that these results have been achieved though.

In the first two months of the season, Rafael Benítez’s side were averaging 13.25 cross attempts per game. Since the start of October, they’ve nearly doubled that number to 24.

Roll on Rondón

It has been the perfect time for Salomón Rondón to return to the starting line-up. Injuries kept him out of regular contention for the opening months of the season, but since the start of November he’s featured in 341 of the 360 available minutes.

“We are talking about a big striker who is strong enough to hold the ball,” Benítez said of the Venezuelan early in November. “He’s decent with his feet and also has some mobility and can run, but we haven’t seen that enough yet.

“He is quite good in the air at flicking the ball and winning headers, but in terms of holding the ball Rondón is maybe a little bit better than Joselu.

“We have two different strikers so, even when we talk about two big strikers, they are different. Rondón is quite a strong striker. He is not very tall, but he is quite strong. He uses his body really well, and that is the main thing.”

It’s no surprise that Rondón is in the league’s top ten of long balls received per 90 minutes (7.23). The success rate of his passes that follow him receiving a long ball is also good, at 75 per cent, more than the average for the top ten of 69 per cent.

An upturn in form

This combination of a change of style and adding Rondón into the mix seems to be working well for Newcastle, although their expected goals had taken an upturn at the beginning of October.

Between the end of August and the end of September, Newcastle failed to register more than 0.8 expected goals in any league match. While they played Chelsea, Manchester City, and Arsenal in that time, that also features bad showings against Crystal Palace and Leicester City.

The story since October is very different. They were narrowly below 2.0 expected goals against Manchester United and again against Brighton, and then have hit or approached 2.0 expected goals in their last three games.

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Another thing that’s been a help has just been the fixture schedule.

“The main thing is that we can compete against these teams,” Benítez said after the 2-1 win at Burnley, only the fifth away league win in the past two seasons for Newcastle.

“At the beginning of the season we played against five of the top six teams. It was quite difficult but after that, little by little, we are playing against teams where if we do well we can compete and we can win. So now [the important thing] is just to keep the confidence high.”

A 3-0 defeat to West Ham to start December may have punctured any festive spirit, but Newcastle still registered 1.86 expected goals in that match, their fifth-highest single-match total this season.

From the early-season period to the one starting in October, crosses have gone from being 4.6 per cent of Newcastle’s passing attempts to 6.2 per cent.

Newcastle were never exactly Manchester City, but embracing Route One seems to have helped Rafa get results.

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