A closer look at Newcastle’s jet-fuelled attack

Evan Morgan Grahame Columnist

By Evan Morgan Grahame, Evan Morgan Grahame is a Roar Expert

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    Newcastle have now faced every other A-League club once and managed to score against all of them.

    With nine games played, the Jets sit second on the table and are squinting into the sunlight, having been the league’s murky basement-dwellers for so long.

    They finished the 2016-17 season having scored 28 goals in total. They’ve scored 21 already this season with 18 games remaining.

    Ernie Merrick has revived a team that spent the previous few seasons sinking steadily into a deathly rut, turning them into the most potent side in the division over the course of a single offseason.

    So far, no team has been able to shut them out – not even the imperious champions Sydney. How has Merrick done this? What new and terrifying weapons has the Scotsman armed the Jets with?

    The immediate impression of the Jets’ attacking stats give is one of relentless aggression. The basic metric indicators – goals scored, total shots, shots on target, crosses completed – all place them inside the top three teams in the league. They shoot frequently and accurately, they commit men forward freely and they score goals.

    But their passing stats go some way to exposing the mechanisms that whirr beneath this forward-thinking strategy. Newcastle have attempted and completed the second-fewest passes and at a league-worst rate of accuracy. They make the fewest backwards and second-fewest sideways passes as a percentage of their total passes, and they pass forwards more often than any other team.

    They make by far the fewest passes per goal and have hit the third-most long passes as a percentage of total passes.

    Essentially, their method is propped up by a dogged belief in fast, frequent, forward progress made with as little dallying as possible – an approach that overcomes inefficiency and a small margin for error with frantic repetition and relentlessness.

    (AAP Image/Darren Pateman)

    Perhaps this stat comparison will illustrate the point best: the Mariners have completed a league-best 3330 passes, and of those just 864 were completed in the opponent’s defensive third, which is about 26 per cent.

    Newcastle have completed a league-second-worst 2411 passes, and of those 741 – nearly 30 per cent – were completed in the final third. They are taking and completing fewer passes than nearly every other team but have made forward passing and passing in attacking areas their main priority.

    Merrick appears to have streamlined approach play, suppressing tiki-taka fiddling, and is clearly urging his team to dribble with pace and directness. He has also recruited and promoted players to suit this system, a hugely impressive part of his revamp.

    Roy O’Donovan is a mobile, voracious striker who can finish with a cold sneer. Joey Champness is a young dasher with a frightening turn of pace and a huge engine. Daniel Georgievski can be potent as a rampaging, overlapping full back. Dimi Petratos is a barrel-chested thumping solo act, a player for whom forward momentum gathers so quickly and who can fire off howitzers with little to no backswing.

    Of course, Andrew Nabbout was a perfect pre-existing ingredient too, and imagine how frightening this team would be had Ronny Vargas not been so brutally injured back in October.

    This is what happens when a manager formulates a system, arranges a purpose-built team to carry it out and then gets his players to buy in. The eye test backs all this up too.

    As far as examples from this season go, perhaps we should look at the Jets’ attacking performance against the league’s worst defensive team, Wellington, to see them operating at their peak level, as barely challenged by an opposing defence as is possible.

    (AAP Image/Darren Pateman)

    They beat the Phoenix 3-0 and were very active early in the match. Look here how by the end of this move, which begins with a long ball, the Jets end up with seven of their ten outfield players either in or just outside the box. There’s an appetite to feed an attacking move here, that is larger than most teams. Rarely do you see seven defenders, in or around their own box, matched in number by opposition attackers.

    Working largely as a lone striker, O’Donovan benefits from the presence of these additional attacking colleagues. The Irishman is a crafty talent, adept at both streaking in behind and dropping deeper to receive the ball at his feet from his defenders or wingers. Here he performs the latter, combining beautifully with Petratos, and here, bunched up with some other Jets on the far side, he darts in to collect a fine lofted pass from Nikolai Topor-Stanley.

    In both cases the presence and effort of others is vital. Petratos’ hustle to offer a one-two option in the first clip and then in the second clip the misdirection provided, again by Petratos in the centre and by the rest on the right, sends the Phoenix defence scattering to try and contain things, with O’Donovan slipping through unchecked.

    A solitary, isolated striker working in such a direct system will only tire and become frustrated if he’s expected to toil alone and unsupported. Merrick’s system ensures O’Donovan always has at least one complementary man nearby.

    Attacking promise, it seems, is held in almost every moment of the game. Look at the way Newcastle set up to receive a free kick, won in their own box and taken by their goalkeeper.

    As the ball drops out of the sky onto the head of the man making the first engagement, there are four Newcastle players ahead of him ready to prey on the flick-on, matched up with our Phoenix defenders. The move breaks down, but for a shining moment there was another opportunity, with an abundance of Jets attackers present and with the defence on their heels.

    This was all arranged to profit from what was essentially a goal kick. Jets keeper Jack Duncan made just 19 passes in that win over Wellington – the Phoenix’s Keegan Smith, to compare, made 31 – and at a very low completion rate of just 36 per cent, implying the vast majority of his passes were punts into the attacking half rather than short, simple passes to his defenders.

    Duncan has the lowest passes attempted and joint-lowest rate of passing accuracy among the eight goalkeepers to have played in six or more games this season, but he has made fourth-most passes into the attacking third. It goes without saying that Merrick’s system does not appear to favour playing out patiently from the back.

    The effect all of this has is clear, and not just in the final goals tally: in three of Newcastle’s nine games this year they’ve managed to construct a ten-minute period in which two goals have been plundered – four if you count the two goals scored on either side of halftime in the win over Adelaide.

    (AAP Image/Theron Kirkman)

    This aggressive style tends to overwhelm when it roars into top gear, and the opponents can be quickly blown away by multiple concessions – the Mariners were in the opening game, the Phoenix were in Round 5 and the Victory were in Round 8. Even in defeat to Sydney the Jets finished the match fighting for an equaliser, pressing Sydney up against their own goal but unable to break through.

    They are a team that guarantees at least one rolling 15-minute surge per game, where the throttle is opened up and their full offensive power unleashed.

    After so many torrid seasons, heaven knows the fans in Newcastle deserve a team to stand proudly behind. The Jets have entered every contest this season knowing they can score and knowing that that gives them a very good chance to win. They seem set for the finals with things going as they are, and they will be a daunting prospect in a knockout situation.

    Merrick, showing auspiciously why he is one of the league’s most decorated managers, is adding further brilliant layers to his already lustrous personal legacy.

    With him at the helm, the Jets are flying again, and no-one’s yet worked out how to stop them from firing missile after missile into the goal.

    Evan Morgan Grahame
    Evan Morgan Grahame

    Evan Morgan Grahame is a Melbourne-based journalist. Gleaning what he could from his brief career as a painter, the canvas of the football pitch is now his subject of contemplation, with the beautiful game sketching new, intriguing compositions every week. He has been one of The Roar's Expert columnists since 2016. Follow him on Twitter @Evan_M_G.

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    The Crowd Says (38)

    • December 6th 2017 @ 6:13am
      Kangajets said | December 6th 2017 @ 6:13am | ! Report

      After a few seasons of putrid football at Newcastle. I can now take my son to the games with optimism and tell him to expect goals .
      Bravo to Merrick petratos O’Donovan Nabbout Champness ugarocovic and the find of the season Ivan vujica

      Let’s hope the jets can solve their defence issues and make a run to the grand final

      • December 6th 2017 @ 7:42am
        Fadida said | December 6th 2017 @ 7:42am | ! Report

        Vujica was criminally underplayed last season. A variety of right footers were played at left back last season, and then a left centre back.

    • December 6th 2017 @ 7:57am
      Fadida said | December 6th 2017 @ 7:57am | ! Report

      My first 4 years in Newcastle were spent watching coaches over complicate things. Passing without purpose. Dozens of attacking free kicks ended up back with the keeper, with possession lost trying to play it back out – attack turned into defense. Infuriating and counterproductive.

      Merrick has simplified it. Play forward every chance you get. If the first pass has to go back the second goes forward. Get players forward, overlap, early balls into the near post. Shoot!

      It’s not long ball, it’s not direct. It’s attacking intent and it creates a positive mindset. Pass forward, run forward, attack.

      They destroyed City in the first half, razor sharp, should have been 3 up. Injuries and a lack of squad depth will hurt and while he has improved you can’t see a team with Kanta winning the league. Ditto Boogard (without the improvement).An injury replacement and reinforcing will be crucial.

      When we talk about how the National Team should play this is the blueprint. This is our national mentality and it would suit us, formation and all, 4 at the back, attacking fullbacks, pace wide. Playing on the front foot. Positive intent.

      Without reinforcements the Jets will burn out but better to die on your feet than live on your knees

      • Roar Rookie

        December 6th 2017 @ 8:50am
        Stevo said | December 6th 2017 @ 8:50am | ! Report

        Fully agree about national team approach. Australian’s don’t warm to tiki taka possession, frankly it bores the cr@p out of people. But the Merrick approach as per the Jets and early Victory is what excites the Australian public.

        • December 6th 2017 @ 9:13am
          punter said | December 6th 2017 @ 9:13am | ! Report

          Merrick’s Victory failed miserably in the champions league, ummmmm.

          The English leagues excites some more then the Spanish leagues.

          England is a poor national side, Spain is not.

          • December 6th 2017 @ 9:27am
            Kangajets said | December 6th 2017 @ 9:27am | ! Report


            What is Merrick doing at the jets got anything to do with epl or la liga. That’s a topic for whoever gives a rats abt England or Spain .

            At Newcastle Merrick has very quick passing to fast counter attacking players

            No long balls apart from a goalkeeper,

            petratos is delivering passes along the turf and various angles and petratos and Champness are prepared to run at defenders and take them on

            This is good sound attacking football and resembles nothing abt what you perceive to be the British long ball game .

            It’s actually very good to watch

            • Roar Rookie

              December 6th 2017 @ 9:42am
              Stevo said | December 6th 2017 @ 9:42am | ! Report

              Agree with you.

            • December 6th 2017 @ 9:43am
              punter said | December 6th 2017 @ 9:43am | ! Report


              I never said anything of the sort.

              I was replying to Stevo & lesser extent Fadida, in their criticism of the national team’s obsession with possession football as to playing the more simplified Newcastle Merrick way of fast attacking football.

              I admire the way Newcastle is playing their football, but don’t agree this is the blueprint to how the national team should play.

              • December 6th 2017 @ 1:15pm
                Fadida said | December 6th 2017 @ 1:15pm | ! Report

                I didn’t see where I criticised possession football Punter. I did, however, criticise possession without a purpose, going sideways and backwards when the ball could be played forward. Any attacking freekick that ends up with your keeper.

                Evan highlights the stat about how many passes the Jets play in the final third (which has stood out to the naked eye). This is where you want possession. I’d argue the Jets approach is more akin to a German one, pace, power, athleticism, attack. Plenty of sharp interchanging and quick ball movement. Nothing British about it.

                Give me that over a keeper being forced to robotically play every ball out from the back and a lack of fast transition.

              • December 6th 2017 @ 3:38pm
                punter said | December 6th 2017 @ 3:38pm | ! Report

                It took more than a good generation or 2 for Germany to play this way & they came from a much higher technical position then Australia.
                Lets get our facts right Fadida.

              • December 6th 2017 @ 6:13pm
                Fadida said | December 6th 2017 @ 6:13pm | ! Report

                I didn’t make any sort of “factual” claims Punt. Ange’s formation didn’t suit our technical or tactical heritage. The way the Jets set up suits us tactically and mentally. Yes , it won’t win us the World Cup, but it is a sustainable and progressive way for us to develop technically.

                We both agree we don’t want us to play a defensive 451 type system. I think this suits is more than the way we have set up in the last 18 months.

              • December 6th 2017 @ 6:43pm
                punter said | December 6th 2017 @ 6:43pm | ! Report

                Like always don’t disagree with what you are saying, but I think what Ange is trying to do is something as a country we have to do, see Tim Palmer’s article on CCM;

                ‘then the players will not be brave to continue that way when under pressure or underperforming.
                It is stubborn and stupid, or brave and admirable, depending on which way you think of it’

                My thought is that we need to get used to the possession type football (Germany played exactly this way before), now they have players, who can transition the ball quickly, I can’t remember Germany producing many players like Ozil, Goetze, Reus & Sane before, who are quick, highly technical & can produce this ‘sharp interchanging and quick ball movement’. Germany was always more robotic, slow, methodical build ups, Germany during the 70s, 80s & 90s were never remembered as great entertaining teams, despite being successful.
                But they had technical players, we need to first get the technical side going before producing a Matthew Leckie, who is physically imposing speed, strength to go with a brilliant first touch, vision & the ability to make the right decisions.

              • December 6th 2017 @ 7:55pm
                Fadida said | December 6th 2017 @ 7:55pm | ! Report

                I always agreed with what Ange was trying to do. His formation was wrong though, and his lack of flexibility an Achilles

      • December 6th 2017 @ 8:56am
        Square Nostrils said | December 6th 2017 @ 8:56am | ! Report

        “It’s attacking intent”

        Three beautiful words that should be IMO enshrined as a Football “Mantra” Fadida.
        The author interprets Ernies way of achieving it, personally I dont give a toss how he does it. Just currently listening to Fozz & Patricick Zwaanswijk on SBS dissecting Bayern vs PSG, doesn’t matter for the fan, most wouldn’t know a 442 from a four by two, possession means holding a pint of beer in a shaky hand.
        You want more at the games, sure there’s no Neymar or Alves on the park, but those 3 beautiful words “its attacking intent ” s78ts on 90% possession back and forth in your own third ,to and from the goalkeeper.
        I hereby proclaim the A in A-League to mean Attacking intent, the Attacking intent league, a beautiful ring.

      • December 6th 2017 @ 9:04am
        Nemesis said | December 6th 2017 @ 9:04am | ! Report

        Have to chuckle at the way people are gushing over Merrick’s attacking style.

        He had his successful MVFC teams playing exactly the same football, but the same people who gush about Jets & Merrick today were dismissive of this style as “long ball, one-dimensional football” when Merrick implemented it at Victory.

        The Merrick style has never been long-ball, one dimensional football. It’s good to see people finally opening their eyes.

        • December 6th 2017 @ 9:28am
          Kangajets said | December 6th 2017 @ 9:28am | ! Report


          Merrick style is anything but long ball. It’s about speed and angles of passing.

          • December 6th 2017 @ 9:32am
            Nemesis said | December 6th 2017 @ 9:32am | ! Report

            if you read my post, you will see that’s exactly what I’ve said. And, I think I’ve watched Merrick’s style a bit longer than you.

            • December 6th 2017 @ 9:42am
              Kangajets said | December 6th 2017 @ 9:42am | ! Report

              Yes nemesis, I agreed with u abt the style

        • December 6th 2017 @ 1:19pm
          Fadida said | December 6th 2017 @ 1:19pm | ! Report

          My only criticism of Merrick at MV was that he tended to get a bit narrow in later years.

          A lot of the “gushing” is from Jets fans, thoroughly thrilled by seeing decent football for the first time in almost a decade.

    • Roar Guru

      December 6th 2017 @ 8:31am
      Griffo said | December 6th 2017 @ 8:31am | ! Report

      Pretty much what I was going to say Fadida.

      Thankfully Merrick has eliminated the pass back to the keeper except where absolutely necessary. It was frustrating that a succession of coaches would encourage this from almost anywhere. Worse we’re the missed runs into the box or attacking third, that resulted in a long punt to the keeper instead.

      Merrick mindset is that attack is a form of defence. He wants angles and runs forward and into the box; he wants combinations and numbers so that there is at least two options waiting to shoot. Balls forward and early. Goals win games.

      And if we turn it over that same aggression in transition to regain possession quickly, as high up the pitch as possible to catch out their defence with quick and early balls to gain position for a shot on goal. You don’t sit on a 1-0 lead. You keep scoring until the referee says otherwise.

      Our backline has improved but they also have less work to do than the past as attckers and midfielders want the ball back, and our attack doesn’t occur sideways on our 18 yard box.

      We’ve been asking for this for a long time. It will take awhile for it to sink in with the disenfranchised after years of false dawns and promises that never was shown on the pitch. David Lowe summed it up by saying some fans are keeping their sensible hat on and waiting for the decline.

      I don’t think there will be a decline but reenforcements are a must. Merrick has continually shown he can recruit and won’t take just anyone because they are simply available. They must fit in and enhance what is already there.

      Hopefully the club is finally going to turn things around in the back office.

      The owner had a three year plan to make the ACL. First season was a write off. The second looks like a good platform to build from.

      • December 6th 2017 @ 1:23pm
        Fadida said | December 6th 2017 @ 1:23pm | ! Report

        Agree that the Jets have been brilliant in transition from attack to defence. Pressure is applied immediately and the workrate is fantastic. This also creates that positive mindset. Don’t let the opposition have the ball, don’t respect them by standing off, get it straight back and go for goal

    • December 6th 2017 @ 8:45am
      Nemesis said | December 6th 2017 @ 8:45am | ! Report

      No doubt Jets are a more potent force this season. But, the reality is they’ve failed miserably against the 2 opponents who are currently their closest threats.

      At least Jets showed they can play decent football – albeit only for 45 minutes – against City. But, the fact they lost a match they should’ve put to bed quite early & a completely rubbish performance against Sydney a few weeks back, exposed a softness that makes me question their mental toughness.

      Merrick has improved the structure & tactical aspects of Newcastle. It may take more than a year to change the mental attitude that seems to think anything other than complete failure, or extreme mediocrity, is cause for celebration.

      • Roar Rookie

        December 6th 2017 @ 9:03am
        Stevo said | December 6th 2017 @ 9:03am | ! Report

        So negative

        • December 6th 2017 @ 9:05am
          Nemesis said | December 6th 2017 @ 9:05am | ! Report

          Wouldn’t expect you to understand.

          You follow a team that is the benchmark for celebrating anything that isn’t outright failure, or mediocrity.

          • Roar Rookie

            December 6th 2017 @ 9:43am
            Stevo said | December 6th 2017 @ 9:43am | ! Report

            Did you read the article? Ernie’s been in charge for 2 minutes at the Jets and already you’re unloading on him. Sigh 🙁

            • December 6th 2017 @ 9:50am
              Nemesis said | December 6th 2017 @ 9:50am | ! Report

              Not at all unloading on Merrick. I’m a huge fan of Ernie Merrick. He’s the most successful coach in ALeague history. The only coach in ALeague history to have won The Double twice.

              All I’m saying is Jets need to show mental toughness & win games against the teams at the top if they want to be taken seriously. No point beating MV 4-1 and CCM 5-1 if you fold when the pressure is on against the teams at the top.

      • December 6th 2017 @ 9:38am
        Kangajets said | December 6th 2017 @ 9:38am | ! Report

        The jets certainly had more mental toughness a fortnight ago against Melbourne Victory who were easily the softest. Opponents this season .
        Victory lead after 4 minutes then got destroyed by the mentally fragile jets

        In fact victory were so scared there coach was afraid to shake hands after the game .

        The scary thing was that Vargas O’Donovan we’re out injured that night too .

        Must hurt to be the Manchester utd of the A league eg victory and get humble by equivalents of Huddersfield town.

        • December 6th 2017 @ 9:46am
          Nemesis said | December 6th 2017 @ 9:46am | ! Report

          Yup. Tough to beat an opponent when you have an extra man for 60 minutes. If you think beating MVFC this season makes you mentally tough, it’s little wonder your team hasn’t won a trophy since 2008.

          • December 6th 2017 @ 9:59am
            Kangajets said | December 6th 2017 @ 9:59am | ! Report

            Newcastle might not have won a trophy since 2008
            But head to head versus Melb victory

            Jets 14-12 over victory,

            poor fragile little club in Melbourne find it hard to beat the newy boys

            • December 6th 2017 @ 10:17am
              Nemesis said | December 6th 2017 @ 10:17am | ! Report

              Yes. Jets & Perth are definitely the bogey sides for MV over the 13 years. Happy to keep losing to Jets for the rest of time; trophies are all that matters.

      • December 6th 2017 @ 9:52am
        madmonk said | December 6th 2017 @ 9:52am | ! Report

        As a jets fan I was happy with the city performance but disappointed with the result, that game they were missing O’Donovan, Vargas, Brown, Georgevski, Cowburn, Duncan thats probably half there salary cap.

      • Roar Guru

        December 6th 2017 @ 1:14pm
        Griffo said | December 6th 2017 @ 1:14pm | ! Report

        That’s just football – you win some and you lose some – keeper has a good day; attackers miss goals…players have brain fades.

        First half away to Sydney was more about too much respect to your opponent then didn’t convert chances. It was a rubbish thing to do, don’t expect it will happen again. We lost against City first up, meh.

        Mental attitude has already changed by the personnel brought in. It swings like it does for any club if allowed to rather quickly.

      • December 6th 2017 @ 1:26pm
        Fadida said | December 6th 2017 @ 1:26pm | ! Report

        Mental toughness? Try injuries to their two key attackers and squad depth (because of injuries) down to kids. A great keeping performance was all that stopped the undermanned Jets romping to victory v City. They were poor v Sydney

        No one is saying the Jets will win the league, but there is joy that the football is great to watch.

        • December 6th 2017 @ 3:26pm
          Kangajets said | December 6th 2017 @ 3:26pm | ! Report

          Hey fadida

          The jets will probably not maintain the form to win the league . Sydney FC will do that

          They are however building an incredible self belief now

          Merrick will add to the depth in January

          So come semi final time I’ve got a gut feeling that the jets will be able to get thru the knockout matches against city , Adelaide or ccm
          and be there against Sydney FC on grand final day .
          A sold out Olympic Stadium and
          Anything can happen on grand final day .

        • December 6th 2017 @ 5:28pm
          Kossie said | December 6th 2017 @ 5:28pm | ! Report

          I agree Fadida!

          How mentally tough would MV be without Berisha and George, especially when playing the sky blue teams??

          Last week after the Jets game I spotted poor old Kev sitting by himself behind the Honeysuckle Hotel having a smoke and looking at his phone (probably has a roar account named Nemies or something). Further up Troisi was all alone looking at his mobile (probably using the mirror app).

          MV are having a bad year so far, but this article is about the improvement of the Jets which is a great story for the region and also for the league!

          Nobody wins a championship in December, not even Sydney FC, but the Jets deserve the positive press!

          • December 6th 2017 @ 6:23pm
            Fadida said | December 6th 2017 @ 6:23pm | ! Report

            That’s nice coming from a plastic fan like yourself Kossie. I’m sure I’ve seen you at the school drop off with a Sydney hat, and yet you claim to be a Jets fan. Or was that Wollongong Wolves?

            I think Troisi was looking at an Advanced Hair app, to reverse his baldness and correlating career decline yeah yeah

            • December 6th 2017 @ 7:10pm
              Kossie said | December 6th 2017 @ 7:10pm | ! Report

              Hahaha…Gotta support the local team, even the Newcastle Wooden Spoons (aka Jets)! FYI, I wear my Jets hat at night!

              It has been refreshing for my kids to see the Jets score this year. They now even understand a win = 3 points!

              I would love invite you to a Sydney FC game but you probably “couldn’t hack it”!

              • December 6th 2017 @ 7:56pm
                Fadida said | December 6th 2017 @ 7:56pm | ! Report

                I could never hack the big smoke

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