• Tue. Nov 28th, 2023

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Last week the rumor went viral Newcastle United social media.

Sean Longstaffso the story goes, had knocked on Eddie Howe’s door with a strange request – asking to take a month off so he could tour Asia with little brother Matty, who was recently released by the club.

“Bad timing” was the general agreement, especially with Joelinton and Joe Willock out, plus Sandro Tonaliunsure of the situation going forward. “Understood, he’s a good guy,” said the top rated answer.

It was a joke of a parody, but in some ways it made strange sense. Longstaff is among the best-known in Newcastle’s squad, a product of North Shields who has spoken extensively and emotionally about the influence of family.

It spread far enough for Longstaff to address, tweeting after he scored in Saturday’s 4-0 win. Crystal Palace: “No time to travel when there are 3 points at SJP (St James’ Park) to be won.”

That’s the thing about Longstaff though – he’s never had to buy a plane ticket to get going.

One of the most skilled players in Newcastle’s squad, his excitement and work rate shows the strength of this squad. Last season he averaged more kilometers per 90 minutes than any other player Premier League (almost 12 km).

Longstaff started this season out of the starting lineup. Howe recalled him after the international break and Newcastle’s form immediately improved. After scoring seven goals and taking three points from their first four league games, they collected 17 goals and 13 points from their next five games.

A large difference indicates an underrated aspect of Longstaff’s game. Although he has usually been associated more with the defensive industry, his attacking pace has been central to Newcastle’s attacking form.

Howe wants Newcastle to attack in patterns. One off-the-ball move comes up again and again – Longstaff sprinting forward on an overlapping run.

Take a 4-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain. The third goal was arguably the highlight of Longstaff’s career so far, the Geordie scoring as Newcastle came back home. The Champions League.

Four minutes into the second half Miguel Almiron drives on, with Kieran Trippier sprint on the overlap. Longstaff runs a trail inside.

Trippier stops his run and sits on the sidelines as Almiron continues and draws attention Lucas Hernandez, before the Paraguayan distributes the ball to his right back. Longstaff, noting the wide gap between Hernandez and midfielder Milan Skriniar, simply continues his run.

Trippier’s pass is well timed and well weighted and Longstaff duly squeezes the ball under Gianluigi Donnarumma to make Newcastle 3-0.

This type of move is known as a third-man run – where the combination of Almiron and Trippier draws the attention of Hernandez and the deep midfielder. Manuel Ugartecreating the angle for Longstaff to steal into space.

Longstaff is prolific in this and that PSG goal may seem familiar. The coaching staff have highlighted the importance of getting into the box for him, with Longstaff set to play a vital role as Newcastle transform into a front-runner.

Before this goal, Longstaff’s greatest moment might have been the second leg of last season’s Carabao Cup semi-final, where he scored twice against Southampton to secure Newcastle a place in their first cup final in 24 years.

He picks up the ball five minutes into the game and finds the run of Trippier.

Almiron pulls a defender away and just like PSG one simple pass opens up the defence. Longstaff takes over and shoots wide Gavin Bazunu.

The examples keep rolling. Here, where Newcastle can secure a place in the Champions League with a point in hand Leicester City, Longstaff takes advantage of a lazy scan to burst into the box unseen. Only a good save from Daniel Iversen refuses him.

Against Brentford, earlier in the season, the duo try the move from a little deeper in the build. It still results in a shot in the box, although Longstaff’s attack is shut down.

It is interesting that after Liverpool equalized at St James’ Park earlier this season, Newcastle tried to run the game in search of a late winner, Trippier sliding the ball along the ground for Longstaff to exploit the gap between Liverpool’s midfield.

Alisson had previously blocked his spin goal Darwin Nunez scored Liverpool’s winning goal moments later.

The 25-year-old is the only Newcastle midfielder to ever achieve this feat. Joelinton and Willock, for example, haven’t had a single shot since the start of 2022-2023 from such an underlying motion.

Longstaff has made more runs into the box than any Newcastle midfielder since the start of last season and while Willock has done more per 90 minutes, he tends to receive the ball on the wing after a cutback.

The run Longstaff makes is far more dangerous and is part of the reason he leads Newcastle’s 8th in expected goals as well as expected assists. The move gives him the option to either go for goal himself or pull the ball back for an onrushing attacker.

“I think it’s a big part of the game now,” Longstaff said when asked about his sharp runs Athletic. “If you look at Kevin De Bruyne at (Manchester) City, a lot of his good work is done from that run, from that movement. So I try to watch him a lot and see how he gets in there.

“Then with the coaches they keep it pretty simple, it’s more about timing and probably not being too eager to get in there.” I think I’ve tried running before but I’m so early you won’t gain anything from it. It’s about choosing the right time and probably being a bit more patient as a team on the ball, maybe looking for that chance more, instead of going the other way immediately if it’s not on.

“It’s all learning, it’s also about transitioning to being a front-foot team in terms of winning the ball but also wanting to come into play with the ball and I think we’ve been doing a good job of that early on.” There’s a lot of patterns and stuff that’s really exciting for me to be a part of.”

Against Crystal Palace on Saturday, Longstaff used this move more than ever – at least five times in the opening 30 minutes – as Newcastle ran around on the right.

Tyrick Mitchell was struggling to cope with both Jakob Murphy and Trippier, leaving Longstaff with acres of space between left-back and left centre-back Marc Guehi. The passport card below shows his influence. While Longstaff’s own passing isn’t necessarily productive, the thick green lines from Trippier and Murphy show he’s getting valuable balls.

Those forward runs also meant Callum Wilson didn’t have to be particularly involved in build-up play, with Longstaff or Murphy instead serving as the head of the trio in the ball’s progression, allowing the striker to focus on his best attribute – finding space in the box.

Here’s an example of Longstaff looking to make that run after just four minutes – although Trippier chooses not to play the pass.

Instead, the ball is hit Bruno Guimaraes before returning to Trippier. Murphy then drives the Longstaff line and opens the scoring by chipping the ball over Sam Johnstone.

Less than 10 minutes later, Trippier calls for the ball out wide – with Longstaff and Joelinton central to attract the midfielders. With out Odsonne Edouard Digging wide, Palace’s defensive shape couldn’t catch up to Trippier. Check where Longstaff is, in a pocket of space you could link to a traditional No.10.

Tripper reaches the box and Longstaff sprints forward, desperate for the right-back to slip the ball past Mitchell. Instead, Trippier goes towards Wilson, possibly influenced by Guehi’s body angle and closing speed.

Frustrated, Longstaff points at Trippier and asks why he’s not getting the ball. Trippier raises his hand in recognition.

After 22 minutes, one of those runs pays off. Murphy has the ball rather than Trippier, but Longstaff still picks a great line and goes through three Palace defenders who are poor defensively.

After competing for the ball, Longstaff picks out Anthony Gordon with a cut, as his shot is blocked.

Three minutes later, the midfielder is central to another attack. He plays a one-two with Trippier before going to Murphy…

… who slips the ball between Mitchell and Will Hughes.

Longstaff drives on and finds Wilson, but Joachim Andersen does just enough to prevent shots on goal.

Another chance comes moments later…

… but Cheick Doucoure does well to cut the pass out, with Longstaff through on goal if he collects.

An added benefit to this run is its role in keeping the defense honest. In the two examples above, Palace have been forced to drop a midfielder into the back line to cover space between Guehi and Mitchell and create space in the pockets on the edge of the area.

With Longstaff’s run off the ball being prolific, Palace’s defenders become hyper-aware of covering him – leading to Newcastle’s second goal. It’s a moment of transition, with Joelinton and Longstaff starting centrally and Murphy keeping his width on the right.

Longstaff’s forward run forces Mitchell into a decision and the left-back chooses to close the gap between himself and Guehi, preventing Joelinton from releasing his second midfielder straight through on goal.

This creates a huge amount of space for Murphy, who is able to get forward under no pressure and pick out Gordon’s run at the back post. His opposite winger hits home to put Newcastle up 2-0.

Longstaff scores an own goal moments later, taking advantage of another strength – forcing a lot of turnovers – and goes past Johnstone to make the game safe.

Howe is convinced Longstaff is a good finisher despite the midfielder falling well short of his expectations last season – scoring once in the league from an xG of 4.53. Early signs are much better this campaign, with two goals from an xG of 1.46.

The next phase of Newcastle’s attacking development is getting more goals and assists from the No. 8, for all they add defensively. Longstaff was 10th in Newcastle’s squad for combined goals and assists last season, but it is no coincidence that his return to the side has improved the team’s attacking statistics. With his off-ball runs proving more effective than ever, expect to see him higher up there this time around.

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