Saturday 20th July 2019

What a difference a few days can make. Well, a few days AND a new manager, change of tactics and playing your best players.

The Hongkou Stadium in Shanghai was the venue for the last two games of the 2019 Premier League Asia Trophy. A modern stadium, very different to the Olympic Stadium in Nanjing where Newcastle United went down 4-0 to Wolves, the eventual winners of the trophy this season. The Hongkou doesn’t have a running track so the stands are much nearer to the pitch (how they should be). It just felt more suitable for football.

I took the Metro to the stadium and met up briefly with the Toon Army China fan group. I quickly realised that there was very little English spoken amongst the fifty or so members who had congregated in a small food court prior to kick off, so I made my way over to the stadium as the game was due to start in about 45 minutes.

Again the conditions were hot and humid. It’s so difficult to stay hydrated in this weather.

I entered block 11 of the stadium which was in the upper tier. I had a pretty decent view of the pitch as I was only a few rows from the front of this higher tier. The stadium was by no means full as kick off approached. Similar to Wednesday in Nanjing, the hoards of local Man City supporters would turn up after the support acts had played the opening match (to determine the winner of the bronze medal).

It was good to see we had reverted to five at the back, a defensive system which had been well drilled into this squad of players during Rafa’s era. Dubravka came in and played 90 minutes in goal. The starting back line was Clark, Lascelles, Schär, Ritchie and Sterry. Then we had the central midfield three of Colback, Hayden and Shelvey. With Muto and Sorensen up front.

In the first half particularly, West Ham’s central midfield seemed non-existent. They would defend Newcastle attacks then pass the ball forward, but more often than not the ball was simply returned to one of our central midfield three, who complimented each other very well indeed today.

It was great to see Yoshinori Muto get a goal, and a well taken one too. That will do him the world of good. Schär and Shelvey were up to their usual tricks of playing delicious long diagonal passes over to Ritchie on the left wing, targeting Zabaleta who seemed miles off the pace. This approach play led to several decent chances from crosses Ritchie delivered from that left side.

Dubravka had little to do truth be told. We limited West Ham to zero shots on target. This was in no small part down to excellent pressing and ball winning from Colback, Hayden and Shelvey, who kept space in front of our three centre backs very limited.

Lascelles has a good game, making some vital tackles and clearances. But it’s the presence of our Slovakian goalie that makes the difference to our defending. He directs our defence like a conductor conducts and orchestra. Loud, clear verbal commands mixed with a clearly excellent tactical awareness make him a real asset to our team.

At half time, Fernandez replaced Clark, Murphy for Sorensen, Manquillo for Sterry and Ki for Hayden.

Later, both Longstaff brothers would come on to replace Ritchie and Shelvey, followed by Aarons and Lazaar coming on for Muto and Colback.

On the subject of Jack Colback, I’ve been really impressed with his two performances here in China, particularly here today in Shanghai. Shelvey, Colback and Hayden look like they really compliment each other well as a central trio to that midfield.

It was class to see the Geordie brothers Sean and Matty Longstaff on the pitch together playing for Newcastle United. An extremely proud moment for them and their family I’m sure.

Lazaar had a howler on Wednesday vs Wolves playing as a left full back in a back four. But in the 15 minutes or so that he played at the end of the game today, he looked so much more comfortable and generally better, playing at left wing back in a back five.

At full time I was delighted that we had won the game and it finished the trip off nicely and on a positive vibe. To come all the way to China and to see the Mags win a game of football is a memory which I will treasure for a lifetime.

Loads of positives to take from the game. Let’s hope the rest of pre-season is as productive. If we play as well as that this season, there’s no reason why we can’t avoid relegation. And with potential new signings coming in, I am quietly positive about the season ahead.

Rob Clothier

Follow Rob on Twitter @tfRob1892