Analysis: Newcastle can’t afford to spoil positive start by not strengthening in defence

Newcastle United's Georginio Wijnaldum celebrates scoring his side's second goal with team-mate Gabriel Obertan
Newcastle United's Georginio Wijnaldum celebrates scoring his side's second goal with team-mate Gabriel Obertan

Chancel Mbemba turned up at St James’s Park dressed for a black tie dinner.

The defender strolled into the stadium wearing a tuxedo.

Southampton, sadly, spoiled Newcastle United’s party.

But head coach Steve McClaren, in truth, wasn’t too disappointed with the point his team took from yesterday’s 2-2 draw.

McClaren has been playing catch-up since his players reported back for pre-season training last month.

There was just too much to do – and too little time to do it.

Steve McClaren watched the first half from the stands

Steve McClaren watched the first half from the stands

And there was enough of a performance to suggest the team is moving, slowly, in the right direction.

Southampton had already played two competitive games – they knocked Vitesse Arnhem out of the Europa League over two legs – and McClaren was understandably wary of Ronald Koeman’s side.

Koeman, however, wasn’t at St James’s Park, having ruptured his Achilles last week.

There were more positives than negatives.

Newcastle started well, and they attacked quickly and in numbers early in the game.

Moussa Sissoko, playing on the right side of midfield, was a powerful runner. He drove the team on in the early stages.

But they didn’t take their chances, and United, as so often last season, were found wanting defensively.

McClaren had opted to pair Mbemba with captain Fabricio Coloccini at the back, despite the latter having missed all of the club’s warm-up programme with an Achilles problem.

And he didn’t have anyone ready to battle Graziano Pelle, who opened the scoring in the 24th minute.

Pelle got between Mbemba and Daryl Janmaat to head a Cedric Soares cross past Krul.

McClaren was frustrated at the lack of a challenge to Pelle, and Massadio Haidara’s failture to stop the delivery from Soares.

Mbemba – who had hardly trained with his team-mates in the build-up to the game – did well with the ball at his feet, but Newcastle, without Steven Taylor, lacked a defender capable of winning aerial balls against Pelle.

Fortunately, they were back in the game at the break.

Papiss Demba Cisse chested a deflected Haidara ball, missed by goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg, into the net.

Many fans wanted Gabriel Obertan to be replaced at the break – Newcastle had looked weaker down their left side – but McClaren sent out an unchanged side.

And it was from an Obertan cross that Georginio Wijnaldum, Mbemba’s fellow debutant, headed past Stekelenburg to put United into a 48th-minute lead.

Seconds earlier, Krul had stopped a downward header from visiting defender Maya Yoshida with his leg.

That should have been that, but Southampton – who had played the second leg of their Europa League tie on Thursday night – fought back strongly, and substitute Shane Long headed a right-wing cross from Dusan Tadic past Krul with 11 minutes left.

It was remarkably similar to Pelle’s strike. Too similar.

United lived dangerously in the final minutes, and Aleksandar Mitrovic, booked seconds after coming on to the pitch for a lunge at Matt Targett, was fortunate to stay on the field for a late challenge on Yoshida.

Mitrovic’s early challenge went down well with fans.

And the 20-year-old, it seems, is physically ready for the Premier League.

Elsewhere, McClaren, it’s clear, still has a lot of work to do on the training field, though he was upbeat after the match.

“I didn’t quite know what to expect, because it’s been a short pre-season,” he said.

“The kind of only decent game was Gladbach last week, and that was a nice gentle pace.

“Southampton, as you saw in the game, looked as if they’d played more competitive games for us, which they have because of the Europa League.

“We didn’t know what to expect, but I’m absolutely delighted with what I saw.

“For 75 minutes, the team were excellent.

“We didn’t play smart after that – fatigue played a part in that – and we gave them opportunities to win it, but I think the game had everything.

“Have we learned anything? We’ve learned so much. Can we get better? Most definitely.”

The club’s hierarchy, meanwhile, still has work to do in the transfer market.

Newcastle need a striker, a winger and a defender before the transfer window closes.

Despite their appearances against Southampton, the futures of Cisse and Cheick Tiote – who replaced the injured Vurnon Anita – remain uncertain.

And so much depends on the ins and outs at St James’s Park between now and the end of the month.

The business done so far looks sound, and in Wijnaldum United have a No 10 capable of winning games.

The 24-year-old – who scored two pre-season goals – seems to have a knack of being in the right place, at the right time.

United haven’t had a player like that since Kevin Nolan left the club four years ago.

McClaren and Newcastle just need to ensure that Wijnaldum’s goals this season count by strengthening – and improving – the back four.