Out of Toon
Newcastle United slumped to their third successive defeat after a disappointing 2-0 loss to Southampton on Sunday. After a concerning run of form, David Bowers discusses the issues facing the Tyneside club.
By David Bowers
Last Updated: 27/11/12 1:00pm
Newcastle United were the surprise package of last season, coming within an inch of UEFA Champions League qualification with Messrs Pardew and Ashley meeting the high demands of the Toon faithful in spectacular style.
Chief scout Graham Carr added his name to an exclusive list of Geordie messiahs following the shrewd recommendations of key players Cheick Tiote, Yohan Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa, who are arguably now all worth treble their transfer fees.
Another signing who exploded onto the scene was their number nine, Papiss Demba Cisse. Signed from Freiburg in January, everything Cisse touched turned to goals. Less than seven months on from his two extraordinary goals against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, which left an onlooking Didier Drogba speechless, it seems almost inconceivable that he's enduring such a barren run of form.
Some Newcastle supporters have asked the question as to whether Pardew has the credentials to repeat the success of last season and, although there is currently no real danger, more repeats of their abject performance against Southampton would see the club sucked into the division's basement.
With pre-season optimism starting to fade quickly amongst the Geordies, David Bowers discusses the issues facing the Tyneside club.
The Demba Dilemma
Cisse was convinced to join Newcastle by his Senegalese compatriot, Demba Ba, who had a blistering start to last season, netting 15 times before he departed to the Africa Cup of Nations.
It seemed as if the fans had a new strike-force to boast about, longing for a partnership to rival the Keegan era of Shearer and Ferdinand.
Cisse netted on his debut against Aston Villa whilst Ba was also on the score sheet. However, that was the only time they have both scored in the same game, causing great concern to the management and fans alike.
Pardew has been accused of aiming to please the Senegalese duo by rewarding them with a starting place, rather than sacrificing one of them for the better of the team. Whether that's switching Ba to the left of a 4-3-3 formation or dropping one of them altogether, there is a growing perception amongst the fans who insist that Pardew should change his tactics in the short term rather than concentrating on helping Cisse find his form.
Pardew believed their side's 2-1 loss to Swansea at home earlier this month was partly due to the Senegalese FA blocking Cisse the opportunity to play, following his failure to report for international duty because of a back injury. Many deemed it bizarre and unnecessary to blame defeat upon a striker who is completely shot of confidence. Whether that was a vote of confidence from the manager or unnecessary pressure, Pardew has to accept that the form of the team is far more important than the form of an individual.
4-3-3 or 4-4-2?
One of Newcastle's most impressive performances of last season came against West Bromwich Albion away on 25th March when they won 3-1 and displayed a devastating combination of skill and pace, whilst playing the counter-attack to perfection.
Fans have fond memories of that game, as their preferred 4-3-3 formation was deployed. Sacrificing Ba to the left of a front three also comprising Cisse and Ben Arfa, the Magpies played superbly and connected midfield to attack brilliantly through the added support of Cabaye.
Is it a coincidence that, during their recent poor performances, Newcastle have gone with a less creative, less imaginative 4-4-2 formation? As previously mentioned, it seems evident that Ba and Cisse are finding it difficult to forge a partnership. Despite this, Pardew has been banking on those two to create chances from aimless long balls from the back, whilst heavily relying on Ben Arfa being able to pick up the ball from deep and repeat another wonder-strike similar to his goal against Bolton.
The reality is that there is no connection between midfield and attack in a 4-4-2 formation, with key players like Tiote and Cabaye in the centre of midfield having little influence. Arguably, Cabaye is Newcastle's most important player. In a 4-3-3 formation, he has more licence to roam and more options available to him on either flank.
Popular opinion within the game is that 4-4-2 is becoming more of an obsolete formation, and that you can't have two out-and-out goalscorers fighting for the limelight. In the modern game, it's increasingly difficult to impose yourself upon the game by just scoring goals. More is expected of strikers, such as coming in from deep and helping to assist other players.
With 4-4-2 at Newcastle, you have Ba and Cisse both desperately seeking personal glory without massively contributing to the rest of the game. There leaves a huge gap between midfield and attack, with the only remedy being another long ball from the back. 4-3-3 sacrifices one of them to become more of a winger, which arguably makes them more active in the game.
Not only are Newcastle finding it hard to create many clear-cut chances within open play, their lack of inventiveness from set-pieces is alarming.
Many teams would be accused of under preparing if they were to face an opponent with just one set-play, but that seems to be exactly the case for the Magpies. Every game this season has seen Newcastle presented with a decent opportunity from a set-piece, but almost every time they have used the same set-play. A floating ball to the back post to Mike Williamson/Steven Taylor, who heads it back into the box to an opposition defender, who has plenty of time to clear.
Many, if not all, of the Toon Army are fully aware of their failings at set-pieces and are growing increasingly frustrated and confused that there is a lack of alternatives, considering they have genuine aerial threats in Williamson, Taylor and Ba.
Although only a small percentage of goals come from set-pieces, there is still a chance. Pardew and his coaching staff must focus on deploying another set-play as the fans anticipate disappointment from a free-kick or corner, rather than expectancy and optimism.
Europa League or Premier League?
A wafer-thin squad caused by injuries could most likely be down to the added game-time and intensity of the Europa League.
Pardew insisted that his line-ups would mostly consist of younger players who would be given a chance to prove themselves. However, injuries to squad players such as Dan Gosling, Haris Vuckic and Ryan Taylor have led to Pardew relying on the services of those who were supposed to be rested, such as Ben Arfa who limped off with a hamstring injury in a relatively unimportant game against Maritimo.
Pardew has another distressing situation to face, whether to go gung-ho in the Europa League or focus on getting back to winning ways in the Premier League. Winning the Europa League will of course put them into next year's competition but there lies a 40-year-old dilemma for Newcastle fans: Whether to win a trophy or focus on a healthy Premier League season.
Having fixtures against well-established European teams such as Club Brugge and Bordeaux sandwiched in between games against Sunderland and Manchester United is incredibly difficult for a team without the financial strength of the top four, but there is no real degree of sympathy towards the Newcastle management as they appeared to fluff their chances of added much-needed quality to the side.Transfer Window
It seems as if the intensity of the Europa League has been underestimated by the Newcastle hierarchy.
They featured heavily throughout the tabloid gossip pages after Pardew admitted his interest in re-signing Andy Carroll, whilst their pursuit of Lille right-back Matthieu Debuchy ended prematurely. Though funds were available, only Vurnon Anita and Gael Bigirimana, an 18 year old earmarked as one for the future, walked through the Newcastle doors.
There was a risk of banking on last season's squad to remain injury and suspension-free, a risk which has potentially backfired on the owner Mike Ashley and managing director Derek Llambias.
With the January transfer window a little over a month away, expect to see Newcastle heavily involved. Even if they have all their key players back from suspension or injury, they are perilously close to having an inexperienced first XI and cannot afford to rely on the likes of Sammy Ameobi and Shane Ferguson performing to a top-six standard.
Stability is a word which has rarely been affiliated with Newcastle United. With Pardew signing an eight-year deal, it seemed that they were in a position to firmly establish themselves as a Premier League force. However, Pardew has won one game since penning his contract in September and the Christmas period in which they face Manchester City, Manchester United, QPR, Arsenal and Everton could hinder their chances of repeating the achievements of last season.