Last season Newcastle United continually defied the critics and gained a 5th place finish in the Premiership as well as qualifying for the Europa League. Our squad established a reputation for being industrious and tenacious with a never-say-die attitude mixed with individual moments of brilliance.
Granted there were many games in which we looked unconvincing, but the lads did not know what a lost cause was. They would chase every ball and somehow find the net. That attitude resulted in a couple of fantastic unbeaten runs that would see our side keep the heat on the likes of Spurs and Chelsea until the very end of the season, even sparking a debate amongst some on the possibility of Newcastle qualifying for the Champion’s League.
Despite the lack of incoming transfers over the course of the summer break, the main fear amongst the Toon Nation was losing any of our key components from that wonderful season and seeing our team ethic, our drive, the very fabric of our relative success simply dissipate into mid-table mediocrity. Well, we kept every single one of our 1st teamers on board but our performances have not looked the same. Why though?
This term we are competing in European competition. More fixtures, less down time, more travelling, less ‘resources’ to cope with the season’s calendar. By resources I mean playing staff. There has been a lot of debate on the lack of incomings over the summer window and I have been a defender of the Regime – however having thought about the overall picture in some detail I’m leaning towards the right a little bit here. Despite the promising youths coming in, we are clearly unbalanced in certain positions.
That leads me onto the 3 main reasons things do not look right:
1) Lack of cover in certain positions.
2)) Pardew’s insistence on setting out with a 4-4-2 formation.
3) Player’s heads dropping.
Lets have a look at number 1 then. I’ve thought about this a lot now. Nobody knows how much money the club has to spend on players, so it’s unrealistic to expect a certain amount being invested in playing staff during each window – however it’s been apparent for a year and a half now that we have needed a central defender. Why that has not happened is anybody’s guess, but it should have been addressed. I like Mike Williamson, but people make a valid point when they say we cannot expect to progress with him being protecting us for such long periods of time. With Pardew having gone on record stating his intentions to break the top 4, we will need a better calibre than Willo to do that. Steven Taylor is injury prone and besides Coloccini we have no other dedicated centre halves. That’s not good enough and Pardew knows it. He has told the press that we need one and even mentioned that Mike Ashley had given him clearance to add one. So where is this player?!
I think midfield is OK. On the face of it, we could do with more crossing ability and goalscoring prowess but with the emergence of young Shane Ferguson on the left flank I think half that problem has been addressed. For now. The other half I’ll look at in the 4-4-2 section… Meanwhile our striking department is lacking. We have no genuine competition up front for the two Demba’s. Cisse and Ba do not work together in this system and if one of them get injured then what?! If we had another good striker providing competition for places up front perhaps it would keep them on their toes?
Moving onto Alan Pardew then. The Silver Fox has his fans, particularly the young blonde German kind it would seem! However I’m beginnig to question his decisions. For long periods of our games this season we have been flat, unconvincing and mediocre. Benny stuck out on the right, central midfielders offering nothing offensively and a striking ‘partnership’ that is seeing Cisse repeatedly fail to find the net or influence the game. Now I know it’s not that simple. Cisse has had plenty of opportunities to score this season, but has fluffed his chances. That’s a confidence thing and he will come good – but whilst he is short of confidence he offers little to the side.
Our wingers have not been providing much ammunition and our central midfielders have not been getting into the opposition box enough. The last point is in part to blame on our lack of cover at centre half, meaning we need a dedicated defending midfielder to sit tight and ensure opposition strikers don’t run riot around our box. That has a knock on effect on what we do further up the pitch – a direct result of not getting a decent defender in during the summer. However, a different formation could see the likes of Ben Arfa and Cabaye play in more advanced positions and perhaps increase the pressure we apply further up the field, meaning we don’t need to defend as often and have more chance of scoring.
Last term we did pretty well with only 1 striker up front. Lets use it more often Pards?! I know the Man Utd win was a 4-4-2, but the same coat does not fit everyone. Why cant he see that? Why does he not change to last season’s formations during games where 4-4-2 is clearly not working? His record with us is good, however it’s not exceptional. Kevin Keegan (1st stint 54.98%), Bobby Robson (46.66%), even Graham Souness (44.82) and Glen Roeder (45.83%) all had a better win ratio than Pardew currently holds (42.42%) whilst at the Toon helm. I know his hand has been weakened by lack of spending, but he’s not as fantastic as some make out. The Souness stat underlines that for me.
Finally something Big Dave flagged up. Jonas Gutierrez is unhappy at missing European games this season, with the gaffer preferring to give experience to our youngsters. He has a point too, he and the rest of the lads worked hard last term to get into the competition. It stands to reason that they would want to feature in it?
We cannot argue that fielding the youngsters is anything other than a good thing. I’m all for it. But why all at once? Are the players looking flat because they are not getting their ‘rewards’, i.e European footy? If I were Guti, I’d be pretty annoyed too to be honest, wouldn’t you? Is there not some happy medium we can reach here that would see the youngsters get regular game time, but in a more structured way? The aim should be for those that have the talent, drive and physique to get into the 1st team. So why not integrate them a couple at a time with the 1st team? That way we can see how they handle the pace of the game when it’s being played properly. In the meantime, if Cabaye gets a bit fatigued after playing Europe and Premier League footy in one week it does not matter – because Abeid or Bigi have been itching for a chance to play next to Tiote!
Personally I reckon it’s a combination of all 3 of the above factors. It will not take a lot to set it right and it does not have to be expensive – but it needs sorting out otherwise I can’t see this problem going away. Pardew’s 8-year-deal is a signal of intent, but it means nothing if they don’t start fixing what is clearly wrong – before it’s too late.