Sunderland's trip to the Sports Direct Arena this weekend is perhaps the most anticipated Tyne-Wear derby, on both sides of the divide, for many a year. With both sides in the top 10 - Newcastle following a season that has defied all doubters, Sunderland following their resurgence under Martin O'Neill - this Sunday's lunchtime kick-off looks too close to call.
The feelings of anticipation in the north-east this week are further heightened by the two rivals' recent form. Newcastle, previously so stern in defence, have started shipping goals with worrying frequency - last weekend's relinquishing of a two-goal lead to struggling Wolves was hardly the best preparation for Alan Pardew's men. Nor, for O'Neill, was Sunderland's 0-4 thrashing at West Brom. Both sides now enter the game somewhat unsure of their own footing.
Though never ones to predict the future (at least not accurately), here at Roker Report we deemed the derby of sufficient occasion to permit a special, one-off tactical preview...
Comparisons to August
The Newcastle side that Sunderland will face at the weekend will be a very different beast to the one that nicked a 1-0 victory at the Stadium of Light back in August. In terms of the starting XI, we can expect at least four, possibly five, changes. Steven Taylor is ruled out through injury. Joey Barton, in a haze of tweets and poor grammar, has left for pastures new at Loftus Road and QPR. Gabriel Obertan is in and out of the side and probably won't start, while the chances of Shola Ameobi leading the line again have been shattered by the influx of a certain Senegalese duo.
Back in August, the Magpies lined up in a 4-5-1 formation. With Steve Bruce's side primarily trying to play through the midfield, Newcastle's numerical advantage ensured the visitors could plug any gaps and, after an initial Sunderland burst, Pardew's men gradually assumed control of the game and negated the Black Cats' attacking options.
This time around, the black and whites are much more likely to revert to a 4-4-2 - mostly to try and eke out the best possible results from Papiss Cissé and Demba Ba up front. Cissé has this week been held back from the Senegal squad through injury, though one senses this is just a precautionary measure by Pardew and his staff to ensure their most recent signing is fully fit for Sunday's encounter.
That extra man up front leaves one less in the midfield. In last week's collapse at home to Wolves, Yohan Cabaye and Cheik Tiote were flanked by Jonas Gutiérrez and Ryan Taylor; there is little reason not to expect more of the same this weekend. Of the four it is Taylor whom is weakest going forward, though his defensive ability helps aid the inconsistent Danny Simpson. Tiote is a combatant first, playmaker second, while Cabaye is the more refined of the two, but each of Newcastle's midfield duo fits the mould of an all-rounder. Gutiérrez, forever tricky but often lacking in final ball, showed his abilities on Saturday with a superb long-range finish - when given the chance to play, this is a midfield with attacking strength in abundance.
It is at the back, then, that Newcastle look weakest. Whereas, in August, they resembled the footballing equivalent of a back wall, they are now far more porous. The shipping of five goals in a game has now occurred twice in a month, first at Fulham and then against Spurs, and the loss of Steven Taylor has looked much more problematic than most Magpies will have initially hoped. Fabricio Collocini is still a class act, but can be dominated if targeted effectively. Meanwhile, the full-back pairing of Danny Simpson and Davide Santon do little to inspire - something Sunderland will surely look to exploit this coming Sunday.
The Black Cats themselves will see notable changes from seven months ago. Phil Bardsley will likely miss out through injury, leaving who fills in at right-back anyone's guess. The wise choice would perhaps be Craig Gardner - but it is difficult to see how that wouldn't detract from Sunderland's attacking options in midfield. Another option is to move John O'Shea to the right, leaving someone - probably Sotorios Kyrgiakos - to fill in alongside Michael Turner. It certainly won't be a repeat of the Ferdinand-Brown partnership from the game on Wearside.
In midfield, Sunderland under O'Neill are an entirely different animal. Where Bruce's side looked to attack through the middle, the current side is one with a reliance on attacking from wide areas. Ahmed Elmohamady will, thankfully, not get a look in this time around - the Egyptian managed 14 unsuccessful crosses in August, that's one every five minutes (he was taken off with twenty minutes remaining). Instead it will be left-winger James McClean that is the visiting focal point, with Seb Larsson looking to provide a more reserved threat on the right.
The Black Cats could play any one of three recognised formations: 4-5-1, 4-4-1-1, or 4-4-2. Given Bardsley's likelihood of missing out, it seems probable O'Neill will opt for four in the middle, with a striker coming in to partner Stephane Sessegnon and Gardner reverting to defence.
Newcastle United Observations
The above graphic shows the average positions of Newcastle players in their last four outings. This incorporates two victories - away to Blackburn and at home to Aston Villa - that 5-0 defeat at Tottenham, and the recent 2-2 draw with Wolves.
The most notable point thrown up by analyses of these graphs is just how narrow Alan Pardew's side are. This is most overwhelmingly the case in their demolition at Spurs where the team seems to have dispensed entirely with the notion of a left-sided midfieler, but it is also true in the games where they picked up points. At Blackburn we see a crux of six (Hatem Ben Arfa is hidden beneath the number 23 of Shola Ameobi) players all around the centre circle. In the two home games they are decidedly more open but, in comparison to sides that play with real width, their front six is an extremely narrow one - they rely on onrushing full-backs to stretch the game.
All of this points to the fact that Alan Pardew's team is much more comfortable with playing the ball through central areas. This is reflected by their strikers too. Demba Ba, who which each game looks ever more established as an all-round player, likes to drop slightly deeper, picking the ball up from Tiote and Cabaye. Pardew then prefers to pair him with a man capable of leading the line and playing on the shoulder of the last man. Leon Best's position in the Villa graphic (number 20) shows how he often takes this to extremes, and indicates perhaps why he is caught offside so often (1.3 times per game this season, the most in the Newcastle squad by some distance), whereas Cissé prefers to stay a little closer to his strike partner.
Sunderland can expect Cheik Tiote to occupy a deeper lying role than partner Cabaye, and their recent returns against Wolves were the furthest apart Newcastle's central midfielders had played in any of the last four games. This again suggests Tiote acts primarily as a defensive shield.
Before moving onto how Sunderland can combat their rivals, there are a few more notable points to make about how Newcastle approach games tactically. Firstly, their narrow approach is often facilitated by playing 'inverted wingers'. Jonas Gutiérrez often prefers to cut inside on his right foot. Aside from his goal at the weekend, his end result is inconsistent at best, but this manoeuvre still holds considerable threat. Gutiérrez draws, on average, 2.4 fouls per game, many of them in central positions. This is a figure unsurpassed by the current squad; only archetypal tormentor Joey Barton was previously successful in winning more free-kicks for the Magpies. Given the side's aerial prowess, and Sunderland's knack of conceding goals from set-pieces in derbies, this could be crucial on Sunday.
Loathe as one is to tempt fate, it is difficult not to see opportunities for Sunderland to overcome their neighbours on Sunday.
O'Neill's men enjoy playing with width, and this is exactly the ethos they should again embrace on Tyneside. The narrow nature of the home side is something that can be exploited, provided the Black Cats use the ball effectively. Newcastle very much attempt to stop opposition attacks in the midfield, not allowing sides to get at their suspect backline. Full-backs Santon and Simpson (and Ryan Taylor when he was utilised there) rank way down the list in the squad's top tacklers. The top challenge winners in the squad are all midfielders: Cabaye, Tioté, Guthrie and Gutiérrez. If the visitors can ably get round the back of the opposing midfield four on Sunday - something the likes of McClean and Larsson have the skills to do - then they could see joy at the weekend.
Furthermore, their wide approach could lead to problems in the middle for Newcastle. Fabricio Collocini, Newcastle's outstanding defender for the past two years now, likes nothing better than teams playing the ball into strikers' feet with their backs to goal. Demba Ba is probably so good at this through having to deal with Collocini every day in training.
What the Argentine does not like, however, is when teams get him turned towards his own goal. Though by no means slow, Collocini is unable to keep up with the more fleet-footed of Premier League forwards; this game seems perfect for the return of Fraizer Campbell up front. Nicklas Bendtner, though technically able, is too lightweight and slow to get going for a player like Collocini; Sunderland need Campbell this Sunday and to get him to play on the shoulder of the last man. That, combined with McClean and Larsson getting to the byline, could spell a happy return to Wearside come Sunday afternoon.
Of course, there are defensive issues for the Black Cats that must be catered for too. The first regards Cheik Tioté. The Ivorian is key in the Magpies retaining possession - he frequently picks up short balls from the defence, before turning and looking to spread the play to start attacks.
To combat this, Sunderland must close him down before he gets the chance to pick a killer ball - but whose job this becomes is vital. Lee Cattermole would be the perfect tenacious choice, if not for it meaning he would be dragged too far from his own defence, thus leaving gaps upfield. Craig Gardner seems the next best choice, he is naturally more advanced an effective tackler, but if he is forced to play at right-back this leaves a possible area of exploitation for Newcastle - unless someone like Jack Colback steps up to the occasion.
The visitors must also be wary of the potent Newcastle strike force. If Sunderland's central defensive pairing, whoever it may be, can mirror O'Shea and Turner's recent displays against Arsenal's Robin van Persie, then they should be able to nullify Cissé. The key man is Demba Ba. Ba has scored sixteen goals this season - his nearest competitor is Leon Best with four - and has posed opposition defences no end of trouble.
The best possible option seems to be to line up Lee Cattermole against him. Cattermole's discipline has increased beyond all expectation since O'Neill's arrival, and a good performance on Sunday could be the difference on Sunday.
This is a game replete with intriguing tactical battles all over the field. There are holes in both side's armour, and each side has the necessary resources to exploit them to maximum result.
Newcastle's chances of a favourable result rely heavily on the performance of their midfield. If Sunderland can get on top of them early, they could wilt as they have in recent defeats, leaving their shaky defence open to the elements.
For the visiting team, there is a need to avoid 'playing the occasion' as they so often have in recent years. Newcastle, like any other side, have their weaknesses - Sunderland must remain professional enough to take advantage of them. Furthermore, they must acknowledge the opposition strengths. Giving away free-kicks was their downfall in August and could again be the case on Sunday, while a lackadaisical nature towards a burgeoning strike partnership will only in tears.
Whatever happens, this looks set to be a fascinating tussle.