Times change and often with it do clubs. For Newcastle, the roller-coaster ride of the past twenty years has brought with it more changes than I care to remember, a lot of them for the worse.
Despite changes in management, ownership and most of all a succession of squads, some a joy to behold and others not so much, one thing seemed to stay consistent, Newcastle’s playing philosophy.
One of those teams long revered for their gun-ho outscore the opposition style, Newcastle held on to this philosophy, in darker days to our detriment maybe, but under Alan Pardew we have witnessed a complete shift in how we get results.
Pardew is a defensive coach and notably meticulous in his approach and preparation to games. He values work rate, defensive organization and an all round team effort aimed at stopping the opposition rather than taking the game to them.
Now quite obviously this has worked wonders for us thus far, but in light of the recent article on our potential to be a top six side, it made me think about the future, more importantly, whether this philosophy will pay dividends that big.
If you look at every other ‘big club’ around us this season, defensive strength is an important ingredient to success, but not the most important. The key attribute all top clubs have in modern football seems to be the ability to keep the ball, and even more so, make something of that possession.
For those supposedly having an off-season or slipping up, the problem isn’t so much conceding goals, but an inability to score enough, Arsenal probably being the slight exception, but in saying that they have a real problem in creating chances without Fabregas and Nasri this season.
As for the other two, Chelsea to an extent, but Liverpool especially, are a prime example of strong defence without creativity. Stats say that they actually create the most chances in the Premier League, but if you watch their matches you quickly realize that the term ‘chances’ is obviously used loosely.
The title contenders are exactly that because they make chances and score goals, consistently. They have the ability to dish out hidings on their day as Newcastle felt to it’s fullest against Spurs. They can all defend and have pretty good records in that regard, but it is not the focus of their play.
As for Newcastle, chances created are way down in comparison but what has us in the position we are in is quite simply, clinical finishing, mostly from the almost unplayable Demba Ba. Our defence, with Steven Taylor, was very impressive, but without has leaked goals, and sometimes looked very suspect.
Maybe this is why Alan Pardew takes the approach he does? Maybe it isn’t his hard-line philosophy on how to play the game and is something that will change once we have better players. Personally I’m not so sure, and even less sure it is the way to go about becoming one of the ‘big clubs’ season in, season out.
I think the difference is most easily illustrated using philosophies on wide players. At Newcastle, paramount to everything else is keeping the defence solid. Wingers are asked to protect full backs and track back more than expected to take on the opposition, provide crosses and chip in with goals.
Full backs are in-turn asked to tuck in and protect centre-backs and double up on opposition threat from wide positions. All goes without saying in the job description of a full back but when you look at the top clubs that is not all they bring to the table.
It has frustrated me no end to see Davide Santon come in for ridicule in some circles for bombing forward, especially when some of the top full backs in the country do that week after week, and more so, would not be doing enough in the eyes of their managers if they didn’t.
The situation with the wingers is one which I think serves us well in certain scenarios, but for the most part makes us slightly one-dimensional going forward. Since the Liverpool game, I have actually been waiting for other teams to take the exact same approach, because as much as I hate to say it, they set an example for how to stop Newcastle.
The reason they could, in my opinion, is the lack of wing threat. Double mark Demba Ba and go in hard on our central play-maker Cabaye and you essentially eliminate any threat Newcastle pose. The rest can be dealt with unless you’re a decidedly average player and Obertan or Jonas can make a show of you, which doesn’t happen all too often in the Premier League.
I’m obviously highlighting the negatives and by no means mean to belittle the good our wingers do in a defensive sense, but I genuinely think it won’t make the cut when it comes to pushing for Europa or Champions League football on a consistent basis.
Although the likes of Gareth Bale, Nani, Ashley Young, James Milner, Aaron Lennon, Andrew Johnson and others in the squads of the elite probably do a shift defensively, it is not what they are there for and are judged it seems by both media and their own managers on attacking threat and end product, not how many crosses the opposition were allowed to get in.
If we keep it solely on top six, the reason Daniel Sturridge and Alex Chamberlain are two of the hottest English prospects at the moment in terms of wide men, again, is not for their ability to protect a full back, but their ability to open up defences.
In my humble but rather blunt opinion, if as a full back you need the protection of a winger for ninety minutes of a match, you are not good enough to be in a top six team. A top six full backs job is to stop opposition wing threat and support their winger in attack, not the other way around.
Full backs aside, basing it solely on our wingers and their attacking attributes, again putting it bluntly, Gutierrez and Obertan are not top six players. They don’t pose enough of a threat to keep an opposition full back on the back foot and their creativity and ability to keep possession leaves a lot to be desired.
That may sound harsh when it comes to Jonas, and I would have thought so too given his strength in holding players off etc, but I have noticed in the past couple of months he gives the ball away an awful lot, and often from simple passes that he just gets wrong, and it’s something that the likes of Ben Arfa gets major criticism for from some supporters.
As for Obertan, I’m not one to jump all over the lad for the odd mistake and think some of the criticism has been harsh, but at the same time I understand it. He reminds me of a slightly worse Theo Walcott. Bags of pace, all the potential to be a top top player, but he never will be because he doesn’t have a football brain, plays with his head down and makes the wrong decision way too often.
This season, and maybe in the future, this may not be a problem for Demba Ba so much. He suits a direct, central style of play, drops deep or goes behind, good in the air, scores all types of goals, in a nutshell has a bit of everything. Papiss Cissè is not that type of forward though.
Cissè is the type of striker that will thrive on supply, and maybe struggle at times if that supply is limited or comes only from central areas. He clearly has an eye for goal and looks like he has naturally good movement to get that yard of space, but without wingers putting the ball where it is needed, he will rely very heavily on Demba Ba flick-ons or Yohan Cabaye playing a wonder ball from midfield.
All said and done, for someone who is generally a realistic optimist, I am a bit apprehensive about Newcastle’s ability to be in the mix for Europe every season with our current style of play. As effective as it may be at stopping lesser sides, it is always inviting sides onto you, and with the exception of one result against Man Utd, the big sides have got the better of us.
As I said, it may simply be a philosophy put in place to put points on the board with a squad that is not realistically up to the level they find themselves just yet, and if that is the case then Pardew is a better manager than I even give him credit for now.
Hopefully with investment and improvement will come a more dominant style of play, and we can start looking like a team that looks every bit the Champions League contenders, but a part of me thinks Pardew could persist with this philosophy, in which case it could be found out and become relatively ineffective, and even beyond that will bring with it a future of functional workhorses rather than your bums of seats type of player.