Newcastle United head into their Saturday Night Football clash with West Bromwich Albion on the back of three successive wins. David Bowers examines the reasons behind their impressive form.
By David Bowers @davidalexbowers
Last Updated: 30/11/13 2:44pm
When there's a Willo, there's a way.
Since their late defeat to arch-rivals Sunderland, Newcastle have looked almost unbeatable at the back, with Mike Williamson deservedly taking a large chunk of the credit.
Williamson has featured in every minute of the Magpies' three successive wins, and has brought a welcomed level of assurance to a previously shaky back four. Although he's not graced with technical skills like his colleagues Fabricio Coloccini and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Williamson's no-nonsense approach has been a key factor in the Toon's mini-revival.
"We've got goals in the team, but we've got to tighten up that's for sure," Pardew said after their 3-2 defeat to Everton in September. A horrendous first half brought back nightmares of a Jean-Alain Boumsong and Titus Bramble partnership, with all three first half goals coming as a result of diabolical defending by Coloccini, and more noticeably Yanga-Mbiwa.
Since then, Pardew's wish of tightening-up has so far come to fruition. Williamson's approach of clearing the ball when given the chance, combined with his commanding aerial presence, has limited opponents to few chances. Even when sides have been through on goal, they've found it hard to fire past stopper Tim Krul, whose 14 saves during their 1-0 win at Tottenham was the most by any goalkeeper since 2006/07.
Williamson's less cultured approach has clearly benefited Yanga-Mbiwa, who has learnt quickly that you cannot afford to dally in the Premier League. It's perhaps been a better learning curve for the former Montpellier skipper playing alongside Williamson rather than Coloccini, whose style of play is relatively similar to the Frenchman's. The ex-Portsmouth defender's experience of playing throughout the English leagues has provided Yanga-Mbiwa with a necessary crash-course on the art of old-fashioned, English defending. As a result, he has gradually got better through a series of impressively calm displays and the knowledge to not overcomplicate his play.
It's not often that a Newcastle United manager has a defensive selection dilemma on his hands, but with the return of the ever-improving Mathieu Debuchy for Saturday's home game against West Brom, Pardew is now blessed with a collection of supremely confident defenders.
The Gouff is on fire
After Newcastle's slump at the end of last season, many questioned whether the influx of French players had the passion and commitment the Toon Army so desperately crave. However, Yoan Gouffran's performances have gone a long way to abolish any suggestion that the new arrivals weren't up for a fight.
Initially signed as an alternative to Loic Remy, Gouffran is now an indispensable member of Pardew's side thanks to his tireless work-rate. Now playing in a role that Jonas Gutierrez cemented for three seasons, the former Bordeaux man commands incredible fitness levels, often seen helping left-back Davide Santon in defence. Having taken the place of fan-favourite Hatem Ben Arfa, Gouffran has performed exceptionally by keeping the former Marseille man out of the team, with his committed style of play trumping Ben Arfa's unpredictable flair.
Most fans expected Gouffran to make up the numbers, and the early signs suggested they were probably right. The Frenchman had a solid, unspectacular start to his Newcastle career by scoring three goals in 15 appearances. Rarely putting a foot wrong, it looked like Newcastle had signed an adequate squad player.
However, clearly unimpressed by the thought of being a regular substitute, Gouffran returned after the summer break with a clear ambition to become a key player. With his admirable desire to cover all areas of the pitch and his threatening presence upfront, it would be ludicrous to drop the Frenchman now. With Gutierrez failing to replicate his form from a few years ago, Newcastle now know they've found a perfect replacement in Gouffran.
During the 2006/07 season, Shola Ameobi required career-saving hip surgery that ruled him out for a lengthy period, with the striker having to learn how to run again. It seems unthinkable that seven years on, he'd still be leading the line for Newcastle whilst preparing for a shot at the World Cup.
November has been a fantastic month for Ameobi. A superb goal against Italy helped boost his chances of featuring in Nigeria's World Cup squad next year, alongside a series of impressively bustling performances for Newcatle.
A career that has been hampered by injuries, Ameobi has failed to live up to his potential gained whilst under Sir Bobby Robson's guidance. However, against Norwich, Spurs and Chelsea, he has played superbly as a target man, with his powerful presence notably rattling Messrs Terry and Luiz. He will never win over every member of the Toon Army, but his performances upfront have given Newcastle another dimension, whilst they wait patiently for Papiss Cisse to rekindle his old form. Not only has his strength and power caused problems, but his link-up play with strike-partner Loic Remy is invaluable.
Remy has scored 47 per cent of Newcastle's league goals this year and looks likely to continue his rich vein of form with the Nigerian by his side. When Ameobi is involved in aerial duels and challenges, Remy has more time to create space. With a soft first touch and a blistering turn of pace, defenders cannot afford to give the Frenchman any room. If defenders continually get drawn to Ameobi's aerial dominance, Remy's threat will continue. A strike partnership that is currently reaping rewards does, however, have the potential to end at any moment.
The concern is that whenever Ameobi has produced a series of impressive performances in the past, injury strikes. If the man they name the "Fenham Eusebio" can continue his rich vein of form injury-free, then a late flourish to his career is by no means impossible.
Cheick him out
When Newcastle finished fifth in 2011/12, Tiote was rightly linked with an array of European heavyweights.
The Ivorian was immovable at times and helped marshal the Magpies back four throughout the season, forming a formidable central-midfield partnership with Yohan Cabaye.
However, an almost-disastrous season last year was personified by Tiote's dip in form. Perhaps guilty of over-confidence, he consistently gifted possession to the opposition, conceded silly fouls, was reckless in the tackle and failed to dominate in midfield. After being lauded as an integral player in Pardew's side, Tiote was quickly developing a reputation as a liability.
Coming into this season, his shakiness continued. In that defeat against Everton in September, he was virtually anonymous in the first-half and had no control over Ross Barkley, who was given the freedom of Goodison Park. Since that game though, it seems as if Tiote has returned back to basics.
He's still far from his full potential, but the mistakes are diminishing. Instead of focusing on becoming a playmaker, Tiote has stripped down his play to simple passes and a focus on breaking up possession. This has led to Yohan Cabaye's offensive duties increasing, along with Tiote's importance in front of the back four.
The balance between defence and attack that Newcastle had two years ago is beginning to creep back, thanks to a revival in Tiote's form. With his creative freedom limited, his importance to the team will soar, as his lack of bite in midfield last year contributed to the Magpies slide down the table. However, if he continues to impress and improve, and Yohan Cabaye commits his future, European aspirations are definitely plausible.