Tactics Journal

by Kyle Boas

Analyzing football tactics

Newcastle made their pitch dry against Arsenal and Brighton

May 19, 2023 — The rule is that the home team gets to choose how tall and watered down the grass is. It sounds trivial, but Newcastle made their pitch dry when they faced Arsenal and Brighton.

You can tell almost immediately by the way the ball moves.

When the pitch is wet and cut low, the ball glides across the pitch quickly, perfect for high possession teams who want to play fast and short. On a dry pitch, with longer grass, the ball moves slower, bobbles up and down, putting off passing and receiving, and often gets caught underneath dribblers’ feet.

Managers always complain about the state of the away pitch:

Mikel Arteta: “The conditions were difficult, the grass was this long. They didn’t put any water on it and obviously that is not a very helpful thing to play football.” - February 2, 2020 against Burnley

Pep Guardiola: “On transitions, the grass was so, so long, even for them. I’m not complaining. Everyone at home can decide what they want, but when Erling drives with the ball/some passes stopped rhythm, and that’s why our transitions today were not as effective. […] The grass was so dry for both teams. It was difficult to give a rhythm.” — April 30, 2023 away to Fulham

Jurgen Klopp: “The pitch was dry, stuff like this, we played really in their cards most of the time” — September 18, 2022 against Fulham

The Premier League states that grass should not exceed 30mm in height. This is checked by match officials before games, and it must be consistent across the entire pitch.

The ground’s crew, in consultation with the staff, determines the amount of water to be applied to the pitch. They have complete control.

It’s part of the tactics of the game, another tool teams can utilize to gain an advantage.

Figure 1.1 - Santiago Bernabéu’s pitch being changed for the 5th time this season. Photo credit @theMadridZone on Twitter.

I suspected it when Manchester City played Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu, which is under construction. They underwent their fifth pitch replacement of the season just before the first leg of the Champions League semi-final match.

Figure 1.2 - Pep Guardiola inspecting the Santiago Bernabeu pitch before the Champions League first leg match against Real Madrid.

When Manchester City passed the ball around, it wasn’t as crisp as it normally is at home. It affected their rhythm, and players with difficulties on the ball experienced amplified deficiencies.

Before the second leg, Manchester City made sure to water down the pitch as much as possible. The CBS crew reporting pitch-side had to hide from the sprinklers on several occasions.

And when the match began, it was a completely different game. Manchester City dominated Real Madrid and were able to play their game, zipping passes around with far less resistance. The pitch was no longer a factor.

It makes a huge difference, and for teams like Arsenal or Brighton, it’s crucial that they can connect their plays accurately.

Arsenal is more experienced with these pitch tactics because almost every team below them in the table attempts it. You need every advantage you can get. That’s why when Newcastle made the pitch dry for their match, it didn’t affect Arsenal.

If anything, it affected Newcastle more. They were getting the ball caught underneath their feet and struggling to connect passes.

On the other hand, Brighton doesn’t possess the same technical quality and experience as Arsenal, so it did affect them. Every pass was off for the first 43 minutes of the match.

They found themselves caught in situations like this.

Figure 2.1 - Jason Steele passes out to Jan Paul van Hecke. Miguel Almiron curves his run in the press.
Figure 2.2 - Jan Paul van Hecke passes to Moises Caicedo.
Figure 2.3 - Moises Caicedo passes the ball out of play under pressure from two Newcastle players.

You have to put more power into the pass. It’s a challenging aspect to judge, especially with the ball moving unpredictably. If you’re not fully focused, you risk losing possession.

The Brighton players weren’t applying the correct amount of weight to their passes, which allowed Newcastle to close them down effectively when they counter-pressed them.

The ball’s slow and sometimes erratic movement is all that I could focus on for the entire first half. It was distracting. You could never tell what it was going to do. You knew Brighton weren’t going to advance the ball.

There was no point in nit-picking their structure or the individual performances of players. It was all down to inexperience.

These pitch conditions favor Newcastle because they prefer longer, more direct vertical passes over short ones, and this is their home field. They know precisely how much weight to put on the pass to make it work.

Around the 43rd minute, Brighton started playing more direct passes and gradually grew into the game. However, by the time they adjusted, they were already trailing 2-0. They managed to score one goal, but the game ended 4-1.

Tired legs combined with uncomfortable conditions are a challenging combination to navigate for an inexperienced team. You have to use any advantage you get in the Premier League.

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