Why Newcastle’s Joelinton Has Scored So Few Goals

Brazilian striker Joelinton has found it hard
going to Newcastle United – a £40 million striker, brought in to replace Salmon Rondon,
who has so far only registered one goal and two assists in the league. Rondon was an aerially
dominant, physically robust striker ideally equipped to play for a direct, counter-attacking
side; Joelinton is not the same type of player, but he could be a real asset for Newcastle
United if Steve Bruce adapts his approach to get the best from his expensive forward. At Hoffenheim under their then coach Julian
Nagelsmann, Joelinton was predominantly used as part of a two-man strike partnership alongside
Andrej Kramaric or Ishak Belfodil. He did also play as an attacking midfielder in a
midfield diamond formation and as a wide player in a 4-3-3, but these were less usual and
a result of Nagelsmann’s predilection for changing tactical set-ups to counter specific
threats or exploit specific opportunities. So, even when Joelinton was played wide or
in the hole, it was for a very specific reason and the team and player had worked on this. At Hoffenheim, Joelinton’s ability to receive
passes to feet, hold off defenders and create space, or dribble, meant that he was a creative
threat as much, or more, than a goalscoring one. Playing alongside another striker and
with willing runners from midfield and out wide in effective wingbacks Nico Schulz and
Pavel Kaderabek, Joelinton would drop off the front line and then either turn and carry,
or play passes back, ahead, or out wide, before peeling off to in turn create space for the
next player by running at the defence. His ability to run directly with the ball
was an asset centrally or out wide, meaning he could play one twos coming out of a dribble,
or take on an isolated defender, especially where other attackers had created space for
him to do so. It’s also worth pointing out that, like
another Hoffenheim product, Roberto Firmino, Joelinton was an extremely effective and intelligent
presser of the ball. Hoffenheim under Nagelsmann pressed high up the pitch, often winning turnovers
and transitioning rapidly into attack – this again afforded space for the Brazilian to
run in to – and his intelligence and willingness to work hard along with his fellow attackers
saw Hoffenheim develop an extremely effective pressing game. Newcastle under Steve Bruce are, by contrast,
defensively set-up to drop off and maintain a compact shape in their most used formation,
the 5-4-1. According to Wyscout, Newcastle’s Passes per Defensive Action, a measure of
how much the opposition are allowed to pass the ball before some form of pressing or tackle
is engaged, is 18.4, the most allowed in the league and almost five higher than the next
team, Sheffield United. Newcastle don’t just not press, they actively sit off. The 5-4-1 is used in a mid and low block,
vertically compact and very solid. If stretched wide, a winger drops off to double up with
the full back, and sometimes a midfielder also drops into the back line to ensure that
the low block stays complete. It makes Newcastle fairly hard to break down; although they have
conceded 41 goals in their 29 games so far this season, that’s the 13th best in the
league. Where Newcastle struggle is in scoring, which
is part of the reason why Joelinton is under the spotlight. After 29 games, no side has
scored fewer goals this season than the Magpies, who have 25, joint with bottom side Norwich
City. But this defensive system is one of the reasons why they struggle for goals, as
it leaves Joelinton alone up front and, crucially, with no one around him to make the sort of
runs that either allow him the space to create something for the runner, or divert defenders
and create space for him. Instead, Newcastle go direct and aerially to Joelinton, expecting
him to hold up the ball. But with the defensive system meaning that support is deep, it’s
hard to get runners to him even when he does secure possession. No side has had lower average possession in
matches this season than Bruce’s Newcastle. And no side has managed to get the ball successfully
into the final third as few times. This means that not only is Joelinton isolated, he is
deprived of the sort of build-up play and support running that makes him dangerous.
A player who thrives by dropping off to make space for another striker, or looks to take
the ball to feet before playing it off and making a run himself, has no one to make space
for and limited opportunities to bring dangerous runners like Miguel Almiron or Allan Saint-Maximin
into the game. Even when these players do get to run with the ball, it’s usually from
a deeper position and not the result of linking with the striker. Ultimately, if Newcastle are to get the best
from a talented player, they need to change their whole outlook: defend less deep so Joelinton
has support, press more to play to one of his strengths, and probably change formation
so he is either playing off two strikers – problematic because Andy Carroll has his perennial fitness
issues and Yoshinori Muto has also barely played – or alongside either a striker like
a Dwight Gayle or a tricky runner who could play as one like Saint-Maximin. In loan signing
Valentin Lazaro, and with Matt Ritchie coming back from injury, Newcastle have the kind
of wide midfielders or wing backs who could affect a shift to a more attacking 3-4-1-2,
perhaps with Almiron in the hole. But these changes are unlikely as Bruce has
found a defensive system that is keeping Newcastle’s head above water. The casualty of this is
Joelinton, used in a system and role that does not suit him and ensures he will continue
to be seen as an expensive under-achiever, however unfairly. Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim
showed how to get the best from Joelinton – Bruce’s Newcastle do not.

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