The last few years have been nothing short of disaster for Newcastle – there has been an identity crisis both on and off the pitch, most notably with their change in jersey colour, and more importantly, there has been an attempted change in style under Gary van Egmond.
While it was initially difficult for the former Premiership winning coach to establish his own mark on a side given he took over a few weeks into a new season following the controversial departure of Branko Culin, but his profile was stamped all over the club’s off-season business: there was a clear focus on signing young, technically proficient young talent that would mould into Van Egmond’s preferred style of play. He wants a high-tempo, possession-based game, inspired by the success of Brisbane.
“We’re pretty close to having the largest clean-out from last year’s squad to this year’s in A-League terms,” said Van Egmond. “That reflects the type of football we are trying to play – based on possession, mobility, targeting age groups that can be effective. But also, we have one eye on three to five years down the line, when these younger players are going to be very good indeed. I think that’s important, the long-term plan – Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
But at the end of a window where every new player was in some way young and quick, there came the outlier. Emile Heskey’s move to Australia caught the eye of the mainstream media around the world, and on media value alone, was an inspired signing, but his attributes clashed directly with what Van Egmond wanted to achieve.
What he brings to the table is very obvious – physicality, strong hold up play and an aerial threat, and Van Egmond went to great pains to emphasise that the Englishman was “the final piece of the jigsaw. Midfielders and wide players know he’ll be able to hold it up, link the play, and they can make their runs more confidently.”
But the dilemma for the young players that had had a short passing game and the need to play out from the back drilled upon them was obvious: do you play to your strength, or do you play to your philosophy?
This site wrote at length on the issue in December, suggesting Heskey was excelling as a poacher and thriving on low crosses into the penalty area, but Newcastle need more from their centre forward if they are to truly succeed in the competition.
“Statistics may show that building a team that is set up to thrive off crosses is not advisable but Heskey’s strength in the air should be utilised. This means looking to get the ball into the box as often as possible, not from anywhere but from positions where defenders cannot possibly see the ball and the player they are marking – the by-line. In this type of scenario he has shown he is almost unplayable and an expert at losing his marker.”
This is a completely valid and logical explanation for why Heskey seems to thrive when used in tandem with Craig Goodwin and James Virgili – both are quick, agile dribblers who provide him with excellent service in positions that are difficult to defend against. Yet, in terms of starting eleven, this is a very difficult side to call, as Van Egmond insists on tinkering with his team, wary of over-playing his young players.
He has multiple options at his disposal. As mentioned above, Goodwin and Virgili are direct wingers, while Ryan Griffiths can play anywhere across the attacking third and darts in with speed towards goal, while James Brown is a central winger, able to play on either flank and drifts to either side. Bernardo is a classic, cerebral playmaker – “a touch player, he can change the game very quickly” – but seems to be out of favour, while James Taggart is best suited to playing as a second striker, but can also lead the line.
Finding the right formula has proved difficult, which has harmed team chemistry, leading to an obvious lack of familiarity in passing moves. Van Egmond is particularly keen to use Griffiths, as he shares a good understanding with Heskey, while he’s also persisted with the out-of-form Brown, who is yet to really impress as a Newcastle player.
Both feature in the side that has remained unbeaten for four matches, along with Goodwin. Van Egmond encourages them to switch positions throughout – although Goodwin always keeps right-sided width, which doesn’t really suit his left foot – and this fluidity helps in the unpredictability of their play. When they play quick one-touch football down the flanks, they look very good – and playing with width and speed invariably opens up space for Heskey.
But the recent good run has come at the cost of attack – Newcastle have only scored three goals in 2013, but this is balanced by the fact they’ve only conceded three times in that period. That’s largely due to the more robust pairing in midfield of Josh Brillante, who has being shifted inside from full-back, and Ruben Zadkovich, who is a good passer and can move the ball at a high tempo, although prone to bouts of unnecessary aggressiveness. The two have a good understanding, taking turns to sit in front of the back four while the other shuttles forward to connect the attack, and out of possession, they stay close together in the centre of midfield, keeping it compact between the lines.
Jobe Wheelhouse was used during his suspension against Wellington, but the club captain recently decided to end his contract. “Over the last six-to-12 months my head hasn’t been in it like it should be, and this will now give me a chance to get away and plan my future” – it’s a pity, for Wheelhouse is a handy defensive midfielder, and a Newcastle stalwart having played 105 games for the club.
It does, however, open up the option of deploying Zenon Caravella deep in midfield. Caravella is aggressive with his passing and positioning but does provide extra creativity and link between defence and attack, which has been a factor in Newcastle’s recent inability to score goals. He might prove to be a pivotal signing – after all, he was Adelaide’s Player of the Season just last year.
Jacob Pepper, Mitch Oxborrow and Ben Kantarovski (currently injured) constitutes strong depth in the centre of the park – fittingly, all are fine passers and their inclusion makes Newcastle a more positive, proactive side, while Kantarovski’s versatility is handy for in-game changes, which Van Egmond likes to do on a regular basis.
What of the back four these midfielders are protecting? Originally, Van Egmond preferred the partnership of Josh Mitchell and Tiago Calvano, but the latter was enormously disappointing and eventually released to join Sydney FC. Mitchell remains firmly in Van Egmond’s first team plans, despite being hugely prone to moments of clumsiness inside the box. He might struggle for game time now Taylor Regan has returned from injury – originally signed to provide cover, Regan has evolved into a well-rounded defender and will challenge for a starting place, perhaps alongside breakthrough star Connor Chapman. Chapman is an AIS product that is strong in the tackle and likes to bring the ball out from the back – at full speed, he’s almost impossible to stop when going forward. His pace is also useful for covering in behind when Newcastle play with a high line.
At fullback, Van Egmond has settled with Sam Gallaway (not to be confused with Melbourne Victory’s new signing, Galloway) on the left and Scott Neville on the right. While Neville strikes a good balance between defence and attack, Van Egmond’s original first choice on the left, Dominik Ritter, was more reserved in his bursts forward. According to the Newcastle coach, Galloway is the perfect compromise.
“Sam gives us a lot of energy on that left-hand side,” he says glowingly. “We probably haven’t had a left fullback going forward as much as I’d like on the left-hand side.” The by-effect of this is that the full-backs can be caught out too high up the pitch, and Wellington deliberately hit long diagonals into the space behind them, aiming to trigger quick counter-attacks with the speed of their wingers.
Again, there is plenty of youthful depth in this squad: right-back Andrew Hoole (excellent in one-on-one challenges) recently signed a contract just days after making his debut, while Craig Goodwin made his name as a left-back for the Melbourne Heart.
The goalkeeper situation has been made complicated thanks to injuries – Mark Birghitti is clearly first choice, but his injury was then coupled with a prolonged Ben Kennedy absence, meaning journeyman Matthew Nash was signed as temporary cover. Now Birghitti has returned, and he is an assured shotstopper who likes to come off his line, while he also favours punching aerial balls away from goal.
Naturally, Van Egmond wants his side to play high up the pitch – they do play deep when they want to frustrate opponents, but a high line suits them better, as pressing suits Zadkovich’s and Brillante’s energy in midfield.
Van Egmond’s role doesn’t just include first-team coaching: he’s also primarily responsible for overseeing the implementation of the new Emerging Jets program.
“Gary is someone who has had some of the best young talent in the country down at the AIS and knows what it has to be like in this region,” Middleby says.
“Part of our criteria is for him to have involvement at the local games, to pin-point and identify local talent – that is part of his job description. This club’s long-term vision is to try to produce a clear pathway for Northern NSW and Newcastle juniors – and that is for the boys and the girls.”
It’s an admirable goal – and with half the squad locally based, the project is well on the way to bearing fruit – but it shouldn’t fly in the face of future progress. The makings of a title-winning squad are here, but needs further reinforcement.