It was clear to most fans that NUFC and Alan Pardew got a great deal right in 2011/2012. They ground out results, were fit and hard to beat but were the signs already there of a difficult season this year?
Many fans point to the fact that we scored a number of wonder goals in games we weren’t dominating in ’11/12, when we would go on to take 3 points. I don’t object to that, there’s the old adage of the sign of a good team is not needing to play well to get a result, so were these the signs of a promising future?
The 2012/13 season has finished. Granted the lack of strengthening in the summer was a mistake, but this was quickly rectified and compensated for in the January ’13 appointments. The appointments of Gouffran, Sissoko, Debuchy, Mbiwa and Haidara means that in addition to the likes of Marveaux, Anita, HBA, Cabaye, Coloccini, Cisse etc that Mike Ashley, Graham Car, Derek Llambias and Lee Charnley have assembled a collection of some of the most skillful and hard working players I have seen at SJP in my lifetime – yet where has this taken us?
The tell-tale sign of problems to come this year during the ’11/12 season was the positioning and use of Hatem Ben Arfa. Last year Pardew was in the press telling the world Hatem needed to understand his responsibilities defensively, he was then playing him, in the main, in a restricted old fashioned right half position with a little bit of wing play interlaced. That ladies and gentlemen is not Hatem’s strong point. He is one of the world’s best with the ball at his feet going forward, his balance on the ball is incredible, yet Pardew was dumbing his game down and stifling his creativity to 30% of what it could and should have been.
That same tell-tale sign of 11/12 has been exacerbated this year because of the similar type of player we have signed; clever, skillful, hard-working, technical players. We have an abundance of them that Pardew coaches to his ideology, his ability (or lack of it). In any team, any walk of life a person should play to their strengths. Within a team the combination of collective strengths, each excelling at what they do best, makes for a great team all in tune with each other. A mismatch of personnel strengths versus your vision spells a longer term disaster.
Barcelona aren’t the most powerful team in the world but their players understand their ethos, their identity, they move forward and defend as a group who are incredibly hard to break down, they don’t sit deep all game, they break and defend like lightning and have players swarming and moving all over the field at all times creating a maelstrom of attacking and defending play.
Alan Pardew seemingly believes in sitting deep, a quick long ball up to a lone striker where he relies of individual acts of brilliance for goals, not teamwork. But do the players believe in this and is this how to make best use of the individuals that make up that team? Is this the defined identity, our blueprint for future success?
You can see during a match that there is no movement, no shape, no idea as to what to do, there is no support, belief, culture and ethos for each player. I think this highlights a clear problem that has only become apparent this year, a one I expect Ashley to address.
We are seemingly going backwards. Is the problem more fundamental; is it because these players came to this club having being sold the idea of creative attacking football only for the rug to be pulled from under them and the long ball game enforced upon them. Is the transfer policy out of kilter with the wishes of the manager? Or is the manager out of kilter with the clubs ethos and culture?
There is clearly an imbalance, are the recruitment team assembling a squad to play football a certain way, with a je ne sais quoi demanded by fans of NUFC; whereas the manager wants stronger defensively minded players such as those playing for Stoke and West Ham.
Gouffrana and Sissoko are a case in point, they arrived attacking with lightning speed, the opposition were scared senseless by the speed of our breaks and attacking play only for that element to be “coached” out of them once Pardew and his team got their hands on them. The players all now look miserable, playing to Pardew’s defensive belief, knowledge, weaknesses and inadequacies as opposed to their own individual strengths. He has proven this season he can not get the best out of skillful technical attacking players. I do not buy the injury excuses, the European excuses the myriad of other excuses that pour out of his mouth at every moment. If the players were as fit as Chris Houghton had them they’d be running through brick walls during the games and taking it easier out of them, the conditioning is obviously a problem.
For me, Mike Ashley has a simple decision that can resolve this problem either way, he has to choose what identity, what ethos and culture of football he wants NUFC want to have. He has correctly put right what he does best by strengthening the business and structural aspects of the club and now he has to decide on our football identity.
To this ends should he support Alan Pardew or Graham Carr. There is no point of another transfer window buying skillful hard-working players that Carr targets if Alan Pardew is here, as that’s not what he wants. Pardew will never get the best out of that type of player. Our current players and no doubt targets clearly play football at a level above his capability or understanding for him to get the best out of them.
Likewise if Ashley’s football blueprint is to be in line with Pardew’s then Carr will have to either totally re-evaluate what is a good player to him and find the “cloggers” or he, Carr, has to go. If Ashley decides Carr has to go, there should be a clear out of the skillful players to, and bring back the Barton’s, Nolan’s and Carrol’s of this world, but I had hoped we had moved on from that.
Carr has been lauded for his ability to spot a player of talent, he has scouted for some of the biggest and best and I personally see great promise in the players he has found within our budgetary constraints. The status quo however can not prevail, either Pardew or Carr has to go – one of their positions is now untenable, and I hope and pray that its Pardew’s.
To that ends, bring a coach in to get the best out of the great players we do have, put a smile back on their faces by playing to their strengths. Sign more of the same with a similar ethos and we could end up seeing in the near future one of the greatest NUFC teams ever assembled. Or we could go forward to the “good ole days” of hoofball. I know which I find more appealing.
Pardew or Carr, our clubs playing culture, ethos and identity are in your hands Mike Ashley. Which style of football are you choosing and importantly; to achieve this – who is going to go?