Some will nod their heads in satisfaction; few will wax lyrical about Newcastle United’s performance on their return to Champions League football.
Having travelled to the San Siro for a much-anticipated tie to kickstart the Magpies’ European campaign, Eddie Howe’s side dug in deep to rebuff an AC Milan onslaught, thanks to a Nick Pope masterclass between the sticks – hailed as the “great wall of San Siro” by the Chronicle’s Lee Ryder – and finishing with a goalless draw.
While a point away from home is not a bad way to start a Champions League group phase consisting of Paris Saint-Germain and Borussia Dortmund alongside I Rossoneri, it’s “still not clicking on the whole”, as journalist Craig Hope would put it.
Indeed, Newcastle started the Premier League season with aplomb after finishing fourth last term, dismantling Aston Villa 5-1 at St. James’ Park, but then swallowed three successive defeats against Manchester City, Liverpool, Brighton & Hove Albion, before securing a slender victory over Brentford last time out.
Against Milan, the Magpies can take solace in their resilience and workrate against a Serie A side who threatened throughout but failed to dominate in their historic home stadium, despite taking 25 shots to Newcastle’s six.
The contest marked the return to his Italian homeland for playmaking midfielder Sandro Tonali, who joined Newcastle in a £55m transfer from, as fate would have it, AC Milan in July.
How did Tonali play against AC Milan?
The midfielder hasn’t quite hit the ground running despite bagging on his debut against the Villans, and against his former outfit, he was culpable of a meek display, completing just seven of his ten passes and winning only one of his six duels.
Withdrawn after 72 minutes, Hope also noted that the 23-year-old was “struggling to impact” upon his return to his old stomping ground, having also failed to make a key pass and squandered possession nine times, despite having just 20 touches of the football.
While Tonali did struggle, it was striker Alexander Isak who cut the bleakest figure on a miserable night for the Swedish striker, having failed to make an impact or even affect the game with any shred of positivity.
How did Alexander Isak perform vs AC Milan?
Isak, also aged 23, did not enjoy his most fruitful fortunes for Howe’s side up front, with presenter Kev Lawson remarking that the ace looked “knackered” and needed “hooking” during the game. Such a statement is a worry considering he didn’t even play last weekend.
Isak did enjoy more of the ball than his Italian teammate, taking 34 touches and actually completing 18 of his 20 passes at a completion rate of 90%.
He failed to do much with it though, succeeding with just one of his five dribble attempts and failing to unleash a single shot on Mike Maignan’s goal, ineffective and seeing his threat negated – in isolation, adrift from his peers.
Ryder was particularly scathing in his post-match player ratings, branding Isak with a lowly 6/10 and writing: ‘A spectator at times and lost the ball cheaply. Didn’t manage a shot.’
Capping off his post-match thoughts, Howe mused that “it could be a vital point, who knows?”, having avoided defeat on their return to the big time.
Perhaps. And there were certainly encouraging signs for the Tyneside club, but their star signings in Isak and Tonali will need to click into gear with a bit more inspiration if they are to advance from the ‘group of death’ of this year’s edition of Europe’s pre-eminent club competition.
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