It’s another fixture in quick succession for Chelsea when they welcome Newcastle United to Stamford Bridge on Saturday for the lunchtime kickoff.
This will mark the first time that Newcastle manager Rafa Benitez has returned to Stamford Bridge since his seventh-month stint in charge of Chelsea after the sacking of Roberto Di Matteo in 2013.
Despite winning the Europa League for Chelsea that season, Benitez probably won’t receive the warmest reception. But the Spaniard has more pressing concerns than the reaction of the Chelsea supporters.
His Newcastle United side may sit 12th in the table at the moment, but are just 5 points above the drop zone and have not recorded a victory in their last five matches. However, Benitez should take positives from his side’s fight-back from 2-0 down against West Brom at the Hawthorns to record a 2-2 draw.
Chelsea are a different level of opponent, though, and despite a nervy 1-0 win over Swansea City midweek, the reigning Premier League champions have recorded four wins out of their last five in all competitions since the 3-0 debacle in Roma just over a month ago.
Chelsea manager Antonio Conte was able to rest a couple key players against Swansea City and will likely restore Cesar Azpilicueta and Eden Hazard to the starting 11 on Saturday. David Luiz will miss out due to a knee problem, but Michy Batshuayi returned to full training late this week and might be available off the bench.
Newcastle has the same problem as most teams in the bottom half of the table.
The reason Newcastle are sitting in 12th and aren’t in the thick of the relegation battle is likely down to Rafa Benitez.
Like him or not, Benitez has always been a tactically astute manager who often is able to maximise the players at his disposal with his tactical planning for opponents.
That’s been especially important this season for Newcastle because the Magpies’ squad has deficiencies that Benitez has tried to disguise to varying degrees of success.
Benitez most likely expected Newcastle to strengthen over the summer by bringing in players with the quality to compete in the Premier League, but that never materialised. Instead, the Newcastle squad is basically the same squad that won the Championship title last season.
But bringing that squad to the Premier League has been a challenge, and Newcastle have struggled at times in both attack and defence.
Like many teams in the bottom half of the table, scoring goals on a consistent basis is a real problem, and Newcastle are no different. They are capable of scoring goals, as evidenced by their 13 goals in 14 Premier League matches this season, but it’s the consistency that’s been their problem. Newcastle have failed to score in 6 of their 14 matches this season and no Newcastle player has scored more than twice in the league.
It’s more of a problem of not being able to finish chances, because Newcastle do create enough chances to win the match, but summer signing Joselu has been especially wasteful in front of goal, despite averaging 2.5 shot per game.
None of the other strikers have stepped up, and it’s telling that defenders Ciaran Clark and Jamaal Lascelles have combined for 4 goals this season, just one fewer than the 5 scored by the combination of Joselu, Ayoze Perez, Aleksandar Mitrovic, and Dwight Gayle. That stat simply highlights their main flaw in attack, while also demonstrating a strength – set pieces.
Newcastle’s defence has also had their issues.
Despite their centre backs having scored four goals between them, that’s not really what those players are paid to do. They’re paid to stop teams from conceding, which is something that Newcastle haven’t done with any regularity.
Newcastle have kept just three clean sheets this season, and those were against West Ham, Swansea, and Crystal Palace – hardly the most accomplished attacking teams in the league.
In their last three matches, the Magpies have conceded three to Watford, four to Manchester United, and two to West Brom. In all three matches, there were moments where the defence looked all over the place, especially against United who looked as if they could score at will.
Most likely against Chelsea, Benitez will set his team up to defend deep, which is recent weeks has troubled Chelsea, especially when the team doesn’t look sharp and doesn’t move the ball quickly.
But Newcastle have shown a bit of a weakness to counter attacks down the flanks, which plays into the hands of Chelsea’s wing backs and Eden Hazard. Benitez will need to find a way to combat that weakness, especially since he hasn’t played a back three this season and will likely stick with his back four rather than try and match formations, which many managers have done recently.
Newcastle’s disciplinary record could come into play – if the ref does his job.
Kevin Friend is the match referee on Saturday, and he could become a big part of the match.
In recent weeks, opponents have chosen the tactic of rotationally fouling Hazard to stop him. In those matches, in particular against Manchester United and Liverpool, the referee took a rather lenient approach to booking players, even if they weren’t committing multiple fouls against Hazard.
On Saturday, Kevin Friend will be the latest referee to oversee this tactic, and it could be especially important because of Newcastle’s disciplinary record.
Newcastle have recorded 24 yellow cards and 1 red card this season and tend to go for the ball in quite an aggressive fashion. In fact, Isaac Hayden and Jonjo Shelvey have combined for 7 yellow cards and 1 red card issued to Shelvey for stamping on Dele Alli.
If the referee offers some protection to Hazard and Alvaro Morata, especially because it could limit the effectiveness of Newcastle’s central midfielders who do like to aggressively try and win the ball.
But if he takes a lenient approach as some have done this season, it could be another frustrating afternoon for Chelsea if Hazard ends up on the receiving end of too much rough treatment.