EPL

Best defence in Europe carrying Newcastle cup bid and Champions League charge

By Sports Desk February 03, 2023

Many onlookers might have anticipated Newcastle United would soon be contending for honours with the backing of Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund, but few could have imagined the rapid rate of their improvement.

Just months removed from a Premier League relegation battle, Newcastle are through to the EFL Cup final and in position for Champions League qualification.

Yet this Newcastle team have not enjoyed their relative success to this point by playing in the same manner as Kevin Keegan's open, entertaining and erratic side of the 1990s.

Eddie Howe this week described Newcastle's class of 2022-23 as working "within the Kevin framework", but their best attributes go back further to their roots.

"Fortiter defendit triumphans" – triumphing by brave defence – reads Newcastle upon Tyne's motto. So effective was Newcastle's title-winning defence in the early 1900s, marshalled by captain Bill McCracken, the team's offside trap brought about a change in the rules.

When Sean Longstaff's double took the Magpies to a first final since 1999 against Southampton, it was not the only long wait ended in Tuesday's semi-final; Che Adams' riposte was the first goal Nick Pope had conceded since November 6 – also against Southampton.

Pope's sequence of 10 consecutive clean sheets in all competitions – the longest by a Premier League goalkeeper since Edwin van der Sar's run of 12 in 2008-09 – did not stretch to an 11th match, but his 16 for the season are the most in Europe's top five leagues.

Even including three goals conceded this season by Karl Darlow and Martin Dubravka, Newcastle have shipped just 15 in 27 matches, the fewest across the continent.

The best defence in Europe has been vital to Newcastle's progress.

Balanced back line

The Magpies' defensive record is even more impressive when considering only minutes in which Howe has used what is clearly now his strongest back four.

Sven Botman started the season on the bench, while both he and Fabian Schar were rested for Newcastle's sole league loss at Liverpool.

Botman is yet to taste defeat in 18 Premier League appearances, although he did play in an FA Cup reverse at Sheffield Wednesday when Schar was absent.

Of players in the top five leagues, nobody has played more minutes in all competitions this season without losing than Schar (2,055).

When Schar and Botman have been on the pitch alongside Kieran Trippier and Dan Burn, Newcastle have conceded only seven goals in 1,878 minutes – or one every three games.

Adams' stunner was the first first-half goal Newcastle had conceded since August 28, with that staggering stingy sequence still ongoing in the Premier League. At 16 matches, it is tied for the third-longest such run in the competition's history.

That statistic explains why Newcastle have trailed for just four per cent of the time the ball has been in play in their Premier League matches this season – the lowest rate in the competition.

There is a great balance to this back four. Schar, with his 1.4 interceptions per 90, is an aggressive, front-foot defender, while Botman tidies up behind. On the left, Burn is happy to tuck in as a third centre-back, allowing Trippier to get forward on the opposite flank and average 10.5 crosses per 90.

All four are dominant in the air – even the diminutive Trippier – and a big, powerful Newcastle side have won 55.6 per cent of their aerial duels this season, trailing only Manchester City (57.0 per cent) and Real Madrid (56.4 per cent) in that regard.

'The best in the world'

If there is one area in which the Newcastle defence is lacking, it is pace – but that is where Pope comes in.

His 27 keeper sweepings – measured when a goalkeeper anticipates danger and rushes off his line to either cut out a pass or close down an opponent – are the most in Europe.

And Pope's ability to read the game is especially impressive given how little he sees of the action.

Playing behind that mean defence and rarely involved in Newcastle's build-up play, Pope averages 30.6 touches per 90 – roughly half as many as Yann Sommer's Europe-leading 60.8. He faces only 3.0 shots on target per 90.

But when those chances do come, Pope intervenes unlike any other goalkeeper across the top five leagues. His 83.8 per cent save rate is the best of all keepers to make 10 or more starts in all competitions.

In the same group, only Kepa Arrizabalaga is preventing goals at a greater rate, according to expected goals on target data. Pope's saves have prevented 6.1 goals.

Despite a costly gaffe in his most recent England outing against Germany in September, Pope is one of only five keepers across Europe to start 25 club games this term without committing an error leading to a goal.

Bruno Guimaraes' recent description of his team-mate as "the best goalkeeper right now in the world" was perhaps hyperbolic, but the data does not disagree.

Defending from the front

Pope has already earned more clean sheets this season than he ever did in a single campaign at former club Burnley, but he and his defenders have been helped hugely by the way Newcastle set up, easing the pressure that was a constant presence at Turf Moor.

Some neutrals have not been quite so enthused by Newcastle's style of play, which has yielded six goalless draws in the Premier League – twice as many as any other team.

A high-profile 0-0 at Arsenal, in which Newcastle defended doggedly, established a narrative that this team are adverse to front-foot football.

However, Mikel Arteta recognised after that stalemate: "It is not the way they play. They have not set up like this against anyone else."

Newcastle's expected goals total of 33.7 is the fourth-highest in the Premier League this season, and their attacking intent usually forces opposition teams back, crucially keeping the ball away from their own goal.

The Magpies' attacks start 42.7 metres upfield on average, deeper only than three teams, and that high line – aided by Pope's sweeping style – contributes to Newcastle allowing the fifth-fewest opposition touches in their area, 21.2 per game.

Pope is a standout performer, but this incredible defensive effort has been achieved as a team.

If it can continue, so can a club-record 15-game unbeaten top-flight run and dreams of silverware and Champions League qualification between now and the end of the season.

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