The first 11 games saw us pick up 25 points (2.27ptspg). We had won seven games, drawn four, were unbeaten, scored 17, conceded only eight with four clean sheets. We were third in the table having beaten Sunderland away and having drawn matches with Arsenal and Spurs at home.
The pundits were waiting for the bubble to burst and saying that we had not faced a real test. Our success was built on a hard working side, but also the continuity of picking the same back five with Cheik Tiote and Yohan Cabaye in central midfield in just about every game. Add to that Demba Ba’s eight goals, including two hat-tricks, and it’s no wonder we were doing so well.
Well, whilst the bubble has not burst, we can certainly say that we have been severely tested. Phase two of the season opened with games against Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea. A serious injury crisis and players away at the African Cup of Nations. It included a transfer window which thankfully saw no major outgoings and although we signed a new no9 we unfortunately acquired no new defensive resources. So how did we cope?
Played 14, won five, drawn two, lost seven, scored 19, conceded 28 picking up 17 pts (1.21ptspg) and five clean sheets along the way leaving us sitting 6th in the Premier League table.
Given a stated target of top ten, with many fans hoping for best of the rest (eg 7th) we are well on target. Personally given the interviews with Yohan Cabaye and others when they signed in the summer a target of silverware or a place in Europe was implied in the camp.
Well we are still on target. Actually Phase two can be further split, as 6 games at the beginning where we lost four and drew two to a much more respectable five wins and three losses after that. So two points per game even with the ACoN players missing and Yohan Cabaye suspended.
We now have a break for players to recover a little. Our full first team available and a fixture list that means 13 games with trips to Arsenal and Chelsea whilst entertaining Sunderland, Liverpool and Manchester City at St James Park. The only worry is the strength in depth at Centre Back given our performance against Norwich, and the reality that we are ‘best of the rest’ at best with our demolition at Spurs.
So what can we hope for? A return to our invincible start to the season, going unbeaten and averaging 2¼ points per game which would give us a massive 70+ points for the season? Or a continuation of our more modest form of phase two which could give us only 55 points?
To many it will depend upon our Captains availability. Others believe Alan Pardew when he said that he was happy with our defensive cover.
Personally I fully expect a defensive crisis just when we don’t need it. Together with a struggle against the other top sides. I said at the start of the season that I expected at least 55 points as we lost a dozen points from inconsistency last season. I also fully believe the evidence of my own eyes. We are a far better team than last season. So we should get at least 60 points. On top of that we have a new Number 9 and a returning Cheik Tiote and Yohan Cabaye.
My best guess is five wins, five draws, 62 pts and a place in the Europa League.
I look forward to the insights that hindsight will bring.