Central midfield has been an ongoing issue for us during the Ashley period and should be the main focus for our first transfer window under the new ownership.
Of course, it could be strongly argued that many positions in the squad have been an ongoing issue in the Ashley period but midfield has been one, given its vital importance for a team to actually work cohesively, that has seen a shameful level of neglect.
Debatably, the last time we were graced with a midfield that ran like clockwork was during our 2011/12 season when we were graced with the fortune of Yohan Cabaye being available for every Premier League game bar two and Cheick Tiote being admirably covered by Guthrie and Perch. We were fortunate that Cabaye and Tiote were available for a majority of our Premier League matches but perhaps even more fortunate that, with the completely consistent presence of the excellent Yohan Cabaye, that anyone stepping in for Tiote would have a clear job to achieve.
Danny Guthrie and James Perch both had the ability to step into the shoes of Cheick Tiote and deliver an adequate performance. They were able to, despite their comparative lack of ability, keep up to the pace of the matches and recognise Cabaye’s importance to the workings of the team. Either one of Guthrie or Perch could be added into the team to replace Tiote and they would have the benefit of playing the game required and bringing forward their own particular playstyle to suit what Tiote would have been required to do in that game. Also, he didn’t really have to, but Guthrie could stand-in for Cabaye if need be and do a low-level version of the Frenchman’s job. In short, they were both adequate stop-gaps for a perfect duo.
All of this, added to the fact that our attacking prowess of Ba, Ben Arfa and then Cisse temporarily negated the need to replace Kevin Nolan (something Marveaux was supposed to do), meaning that we were a team who worked brilliantly together.
Things started to go wrong in the 2012/13 season when Vurnon Anita was brought in with the intention of adding a third man to a successful two-man outfit. This was a case, unfortunately, of trying to fix something that wasn’t broken.
Now, of course, there is nothing wrong with adding extra dimensions to a team but the inclusion of Anita meant the exit of Guthrie and the meddling with a system that was already perfectly in place. The hierarchy would have also known Cabaye’s future was not with Newcastle for the long-term as they had sold the club as a stepping-stone so bringing in a different type of player who would both diminish the midfield’s cohesion and fail in replacing Cabaye was lunacy.
Unfortunately, Anita was a cog for a different team and a cog that decreased efficiency instead of increased.
At this point, whilst accepting that Cabaye wasn’t a long-term solution, attempts should have been made for a long-term Cabaye successor (who could have replaced Guthrie in the squad) and an actual replacement for Nolan in CAM position (a position that wouldn’t impede on the Cabaye and Tiote positions and provide a beneficial alternative attacking outlet).
Instead, what happened was a scatter-gun approach to filling positions in the squad with long-term cohesion thrown out of the window.
Moussa Sissoko was brought in during the January window and, while his immediate impact was great, his undefined position meant that we had four ‘purples’ who couldn’t and wouldn’t replace each other. Sissoko was too egotistical to simply do Tiote’s dirty work and not tidy enough to do Cabaye’s job while Anita was too weak to replace Tiote’s might and not sprawling enough to replace Cabaye. Neither one of them could replace Nolan’s savviness in front of goal either.
These problems have continued throughout the seasons with a constant neglect to replace quality with quality or an inability to bring in players who fit the required mould.
We have now been left a midfield bereft of cohesion and lacking the quality once seen in our midfield.
If you look at our midfield now with the viewpoint of them replacing past ‘purple’ players and how they are being or have been played, this is essentially what we have now:
- Shelvey as Cabaye
- Hayden as Tiote
- Longstaff as Sissoko
- Willock as Nolan/Wijnaldum
- Hendrick as Gosling (i.e. pretty pointless)
The problem with all of these roles is that they’re all poorer versions of what have come before and they are also players with less defined roles due to coaching and their inabilities as players.
Jonjo Shelvey is the closest in our team to Cabaye’s passing ability but he lacks the tenacity and discipline that Cabaye had to his game. The Frenchman never let the game simply pass him by. He would get stuck in with a willingness to chase and harry opposition players when not on the ball, but switch to orchestrating an entire attack when in control.
As much as he might think he is, Shelvey does not have the passing ability of Cabaye and he certainly doesn’t have the discipline either. This means, as you can imagine, that attacks are not as potent as they were and our current Tiote (Hayden) has to double the work and with half the ability.
Our current Sissoko suffers from the exact same problem that our past Sissoko did; there is no defined position for him. Too often Longstaff is required to attempt to fill in for Shelvey, Hayden or Willock. He is a player who hasn’t developed or been coached into a clear, defined place and now he is an everyman.
Under Benitez, Longstaff had a clearly defined role of pushing forward and dictating play but now he is too often required split his play into assisting Hayden or attempting the Shelvey longball.
Willock’s position should be clear as he had so much success bursting forward and poaching goals in a way reminiscent of Nolan and Wijnaldum. However, due to a combination of poor coaching, lack of adequate cover in other positions and general buffoonery, Willock has been played deeper and has been forced into being a stopgap player for the likes of Shelvey (an issue seen before when Wijnaldum was shoehorned into other positions and was incorrectly brought in as the new Cabaye). In reality, Willock being placed deeper into midfield wouldn’t be as detrimental to the team if our other players were being played in correct positions but that simply isn’t the case.
In summary, our midfield is in need of massive overhaul. Yes, of course, there is a very valid argument that everything in our squad needs a massive overhaul but our midfield has been suffering the longest.
Our defence, for example, is well stocked with players who have proven to do a job when properly coached and have shown that there is an easy cohesion to create. There is also the glaring issue of constantly shifting backlines with the one constant being a championship level, 32-year-old right winger playing left-back. Upgrades are definitely needed but not as desperately as midfield.
So, what needs to happen?
Let’s say, miraculously, we’re in a place of relative safety come January and we can attract some decent players.
Realistically, about seven current squad members could be removed during January without damaging cohesion and morale (which is obviously so vital at the moment…). We need to say goodbye to: Woodman (loan), Gillespie, Clark, Krafth, Gayle and the two most damaging midfield players of Shelvey and Hendrick.
Hendrick needs to leave because he’s absolutely woeful and Shelvey needs to leave because he is lazy and is only out for himself.
Of course, wages for these outward going players are an issue but you would hope that this current regime would be more willing to barter with clubs to allow squad place. For example, Shelvey is on an outrageous wage but you would hope that we could loan him out to a Championship or Scottish club and pay part of his wages.
Three midfield upgrades need to be brought in that make Longstaff and Hayden squad players like Guthrie and Perch were with the intention of moving them on in the long-term. Only Joe Willock should be given the opportunity to keep his place in our side. We need two quality replacements for Shelvey and one quality replacement for Hayden to successfully upgrade the team and produce quality squad depth.
I think the reality of our situation means that convincing players to come to us will be difficult and perhaps we will have to pay a premium in the loan market but serious improvements need to be made in midfield and they need to be done as quickly as possible.