As Newcastle enters the Christmas period a strange calm has lowered over Tyneside. Registering four consecutive wins would typically arouse the kind of giddy excitement and anticipation expected only for Christmas day itself. But while various paper based outlets are poking thoughts of another European campaign, the caution amongst supporters is more palpable.
Any given man who enjoys a cautious bet on soccer would have taken the quartet of league fixtures falling from a desperately lacking loss to Sunderland as seven points at best; many viewing that as an optimistic prospect itself. However, the bizarrely erratic performances stretching from August have settled sharply to a smoother more disciplined format where grinding out results has been the order of the day. Whether by design or accident, the strategy has concluded a round of fixtures with a healthy points tally (and healthy squad) to take into the fast flowing Christmas period.
Although players and management alike deserve plaudits for this – some individually, and collectively – the period has also benefited richly from fortunate circumstance needed when attempting to build form – something that deserted NUFC for pretty much the entirety of the season previous. Indeed it may be the events of last season still fresh in the mind that have kept attitudes cautious – or perhaps it’s that despite the comfort of a points tally better than the reigning champions, after a third of the season, the football played hasn’t been exactly been emphatic. A goal difference of +1 is the lowest by comfortable margin to all other teams in positive figures – the problems of scoring goals may have been mostly solved by Loic Remy, but frequently conceding them remains an issue that should not be ignored, even if the results are favourable.
And why not? Should constructive criticism of a winning side be denied simply because the result was 3pts? The win at Tottenham could still be fully enjoyed with a frank and brutal assessment once the day had past of why Tim Krul had so many saves to make – whilst equally appreciating the cutting counter attacks made in the first period that lead to the winning goal. Without honest appraisals of wins as well as defeats we restrict ourselves to at most half of what we could learn – and even if the there is nothing to be gained – an opposition simply too good for us, or a bad day at the office, at least the exercise of review has been conducted with proactive intent in mind.
Even with this mentality however, there is obviously a limit to what this squad can achieve, realistically. The argument that on our day we can take any team at home has weight, although can be misleading in terms of ability when considering the same boost of motivation and effort is what facilitates cup upsets. However, with the team now looking far more settled and solid (if not spectacular), Alan Pardew has a platform to build from with January approaching – and in patches of the team some very real ability. The 442 system stuck with recently may be tied together somewhat loosely – relying up the fitness of Shola Ameobi and the improvisation of Sissoko and Gouffran as wingers – but the important fact is it is a system that is working with more consistency than has been seen of late.
Pardew has made no secret of his preference to play 442, and although this stubbornness has caused us problems before, now is his perfect time to take the successes of our recently starting XI and buying the correct players to improve it. This may mean sacrificing assets such as Papiss Cisse and Hatem Ben Arfa, who would very likely move on to play well elsewhere – and in the latter’s case be very unpopular – but best for the club if the finances were properly invested (a big if). Ultimately genuine rather than accidental progress is more likely to come down to the willingness of Mike Ashley to loosen his highly restrictive grip upon the club – but beyond that, being honest with ourselves wouldn’t be the worst place to start.
So, international weekend again. After the late but entertaining scramble to qualify, the English national football team take a form of precedence and spend the forthcoming long weekend entertaining their cohorts of the upcoming Brazil World cup.
In recent years the break in league football for glorified international kickabouts has received significant and vocal cynicism – the kind that wouldn’t have you expecting to hear of a mad rush for tickets for the World Cup from this stamp of the Northern hemisphere. Cynicism is too easy when England are concerned – it’s deeply set in our national psyche, we’re a nation that seems to expect underachievement – to be underwhelmed, whether justifiable or not.
“Really poor performance but fortunately it was against a team so bad you could drag people out of pub teams to play for them and they wouldn’t look out of place..”
That was just one in a string of negative comments taken from the BBC Sport website after coasting past Moldova in a 4-0 victory. Whist not wanting to give overemphasised credence to the factual accuracy of the tribal rage that circulates the comment sections of major websites, the cynicism is there for all to see. Even ITV, broadcasting the final home fixture against Poland days later, chose to open with various citations to late failures to qualify in the past – raising a very questioning eyebrow at the time to its actual purpose.
In most ways, the national side has unwittingly helped create this specific cynicism. The out-of-context “golden generation” tagline has many still reacting to every squad selection like a swathe of world-class players are being overlooked for the inclusion of James Milner – even if the headline of “Jordan Henderson hoping to win England World Cup place” won’t set many a pulse racing.
However, recent events have created a spark of hope that this outlook can improve. Two home wins in the final two qualifiers were required to guarantee a trip to Brazil next summer, and Roy Hodgson somewhat surprised the masses by fielding two very positive teams. Intent on taking the game to the opposition from the very start and winning by numbers, six goals and a host of aggressive attacks followed.
The monotonous, greyish appearance of Hodgson certainly hasn’t made his sale to the general public easy – as an unlikely source as any to deliver rousing optimism, but the wise old manager has far more positive thinking within him that credited. His call-ups to previously unselected players such as Ricky Lambert and Andros Townsend have been met with the standard cynicism, but made a refreshing (if not small) break from the days a player’s name could have been finely carved in the dressing room bench. Moreover, both players played scoring roles in the final qualifying games – pouring cold water over the howls of derision that greeted their squad inclusions.
The trend has continued with recent, and deserved, additions of Adam Lallana and Jay Rodriguez; however their inclusion in a playing side will be required to give long term belief that England will be genuinely selected upon form and future – players not called upon simply to fill up the squad numbers.
The quality of entertainment, at Wembley mainly, has also risen. The 0-0 draw in Ukraine was the only game England had failed score since exiting Euro 2012, 15 games ago – 15 games which have seen a whopping 55 goals scored. The cynic may point at routine wins over minnows such as San Marino, but it would be disingenuous to say the games vs Brazil, Sweden and Scotland were not good value entertainment, regardless of end result.
Roy Hodgson should be at pains to extrapolate this small spark; this glimmer of entertainment – of fun – that has dried up with following the national side in recent years. After all England will not win next year’s World Cup – we will be there to make up the numbers (unless you’re feeling insanely confident and ready to Get your tickets to the World Cup final), but do we go as plucky entertainers playing with a refreshing release from pressure and genuine enjoyment at being there, or return to an apparent safer way, attempting to stumble along to quarter finals?
The nation’s imagination may not exactly be there to recapture, but their collective attention certainly is. Many weaker teams have proved a knack for delivering unashamed entertainment – it is a realistic possibility. And at the home of samba, what better stage to begin.
When Papiss Cisse came on as a half time substitute away to Sunderland at the weekend, the decision made some sense – in theory, anyway. Losing 0-1, not creating many openings, get a striker on to increase our options. Yet did any of you genuinely look at Cisse and think he was a likely scorer? I must admit, I’d spent most of the first half getting more and more frustrated with Sissoko. Whether it was his fault or Pardew’s (for playing him out of position) it felt like he kept being the sticking point as we broke forward. He’d lumber around in attacking positions, slowing things down and giving their equally lumbering defence the chance to regroup. Tiote was doing well enough in his holding role so Sissoko was an obvious candidate to take off. My choice would have been Anita to replace him – a more lively option, more movement, more invention, keeps play going.. However, Pardew went for Cisse. It meant more of a reshuffle but at least on paper it gave us another goalscoring threat.
Yet this comes back to my original point. Was Pardew introducing a goalscoring threat? Or was he effectively reducing us to ten men for the whole of the second half? If you take that view, then you’d have to praise the man for his charitable outlook on life as he reduced us to nine men shortly after the equaliser by replacing Remy with Shola. Anyway, I digress. In bringing on Papiss Cisse, Pardew – unfortunately for us – wasn’t introducing the sparkling livewire who scored 13 in his first 14 games for us. He was introducing the increasingly forlorn, desperate liability who has now gone 7 months since he last scored a league goal. Much has been said before about the reasons behind Cisse’s decline and much of it is valid too – he’s an instinctive player, all about confidence and spur-of-the-moment decisions. If the goals aren’t coming then he has shown himself to have a tendency to try and force himself back into form by going for outrageous, spectacular efforts. It worked at home to Southampton last season but that strike was one among many such efforts. This isn’t what you want your number 9 to be doing, of course. His main role is to be a cutting edge, not to produce 3 or 4 screamers per year. His goals total last season was propped up to some extent by a decent tally in Europe but the fact is that he managed 8 goals in 37 league games. This season he’s failed to score in 8.
Players decline, yes. Players can be “worked out” by opposing defences, yes. But when you look at Cisse’s career stats, this run of 8 goals in 45 league games is a million miles away from any run of poor form he’s had before. Besides, at what point does “poor form” become an altogether deeper issue?
Rather than going for an all out attack on Cisse’s ability as a player, or indeed on Pardew and his backroom staff’s (in)ability to coach players, I thought I’d take a slightly different approach. Cast your mind back, please to 29th January 2013.Fresh from an injection of a lorryload of French players we arrived at Villa Park with renewed confidence and suddenly produced a much-improved performance alongside a badly-needed victory. Papiss Cisse scored a significant goal on that pivotal evening. No, it wasn’t his last league goal for us (he’s managed 3 more since then. 3 more since the end of January.), but this goal wasn’t just significant for Cisse as much as it was for the whole team. Because that opening goal at Villa Park was the last time (in the Premier League we scored perhaps the most basic of goals – the through ball from midfield to put the striker clean through on goal. 31 league and cup games later and we haven’t managed to score even one goal of that type. Much has been made of our lack of goals direct from corners in recent years but for me this stat is of much greater concern. Corners are a fairly straightforward affair with an element of lottery to them. We could be doing better, of course, but tactics shouldn’t be built around set-pieces. However, the thought that in 31 games since that night at Villa Park we haven’t once managed to play a striker in behind the defence to score is a real worry, and is perhaps as big a factor as any in Cisse’s decline. That “threaded through ball” from central midfield just isn’t happening.
Cisse plays in a way very reminiscent of how Andy Cole once did for us. His movement is very similar but, much like Cole needed a selfless partner like Beardsley (or later Sheringham) to be his brains and think one step ahead of him, Cisse simply cannot operate in our current system. In fact, going back to that grim defeat at Sunderland, it worries me that we are fundamentally lacking in terms of the variety of threats we are able to offer. We don’t score from corners, this is a known fact. We effectively play without direct wingers (or an aerial threat up front) so crosses in from wide positions aren’t an option. And, seemingly, we aren’t set up to play incisive through balls for a striker to run onto.
Our attack in open play is becomingly increasingly restricted to someone cutting in from either flank and taking a shot themselves or firing a low or chipped cross in to the centre. The only alternative to that seems to be a spectacular long range effort or piece of skill from Cabaye or Ben Arfa. The obvious problem here is that if we become restricted to one or two channels of attack then we become predictable and therefore easy to defend against. We’re already seeing teams frequently doubling up on Ben Arfa and/or Remy and it’s nullifying us almost completely. Setting all rivalry aside, Sunderland have proven all season to be quite limited defensively and yet we never once got the opportunity to run in behind them.
Feasibly it’s a personnel issue. Pardew spent most of the first half at Sunderland switching players around, rotating the attacking players trying to find a magic formula to bring about a breakthrough. Yet, to me, Cisse is exactly the sort of player to thrive on that kind of opening. He simply isn’t being given them to work with. The team seems to be entirely geared up to working the ball out to the inside left/right channels. We’re fortunate in that we have people like Remy, Ben Arfa and Cabaye who are capable of the occasional piece of brilliance to overcome such predictability but if they have an off day, which they are more than capable of, then there is literally nothing else happening. Just sedate, toothless passing in the central third of the pitch with no movement and no incision.
We’ve scored plenty of goals this season so I appreciate this doesn’t really appear to be a major issue, but predictability is something that opponents quickly work out. And if Pardew’s Plan B is to bring on Shola and go direct then we may as well give up now. Pardew, and perhaps the players, need to learn that “going central” doesn’t have mean “going long”. If Remy and Ben Arfa can create space in wide areas they can do it in central areas, and that can bring Cisse back to life, I’m certain of it.
Author: Paul McIntosh
Follow Paul on Twitter @mcintoshpaul
I hate derby day. I hate the build-up and I hate the game itself. I’m not sure what this says about me but every time it looms on the horizon I’d happily scrub it from the fixture list and accept a draw. I realise that for a lot of people the very reasons I give for dreading the game are the same reasons they love it. My fear of defeat might be your fizz-popping excitement at the thought of winning. The heart-in-mouth agony and pessimism I go through during the game itself may well translate as fired-up venomous passion for you.
I see it as something of a personal Achilles Heel. I am, after all, a statistician. A comprehensive geek with a brain fuelled by numbers. When I watch us play I constantly have a collection of league table permutations jostling for position depending on how all of that day’s games are going. I don’t do this on purpose, you understand. It’s just the way my brain is wired. So, in theory, I should be able to apply a bit of logic to an impending derby game and accept that, in league table terms, it’s just another three points to play for.
Yet supporting a team is an emotional process and it becomes so tribal and all-encompassing that it’s hard to apply any logic. There are plenty of other teams out there that I truly hate. Liverpool, for example. I can’t ever imagine supporting them. On reflection, cocaine would probably help. That inflated sense of importance based on the square root of fuck all would come in handy. Chuck in a bit of petulance, some rampant paranoia and it’s job done.
I’m not overly keen on Chelsea either. Or West Ham. Or Manchester City, Everton, Villa.. it’s a long old list when I stop to think about it. Yet when we come to play these teams, once the game kicks off it’s all about NUFC. I pay very little attention to them or their fans.
However, when we take on Sunderland it’s different. I accept it’s not one of the “big” world-recognised derbies that some people up here would like to think. I expect most of the rest of the country views our little local squabble in the same way we might look at a non-entity of a fixture such as Birmingham v Villa or Liverpool v Everton. No trophies ever hinge on these dire games nowadays. However when you’re looking at two clubs who, between them, have won NOTHING for 40 long years, the sheer importance of local bragging rights is there for all to see. Our rivalry, at times, feels like all we have!
Yes, for spells in the last 20 years or so we’ve occasionally tarted ourselves up a bit, competed with the big boys, swanned around Europe, while Sunderland played their spurned lover role to perfection. Shrieking like bairns while we had the nerve to look beyond the confines of the North East and attempted to win a real trophy. Not the fabled “North East Top Dogs Trophy” that has a Halley’s Comet-like existence, appearing only on the rare occasions Sunderland finish above us. But there’s no denying we are now both very much back in 80s mode. Two teams with no prospect of winning anything preparing to lock horns like a pair of three-legged elderly stags. And that’s not a metaphor I use lightly. Or often.
Anyway, I digress. I apologise. Here I am wittering on about Newcastle and Sunderland when this was supposed to be an in-depth session of psychological self-analysis.
I decided to address my hatred and fear of the derby game. I need to use logic and rock-solid statistical proof to reassure myself that this fixture is not to be dreaded.
On paper we are better than them all over the pitch. We’re scoring goals and we’ve got some excellent attacking players in good form. They’ve got an incredibly slow defence (I’d be tempted to compare them to a collection of three-legged elderly stags if I hadn’t used that metaphor already) in terrible form that would appear to be there for the taking.
Recent history is very much on our side. We’ve won 12 of the last 25 derby games. They’ve won 4. The fact that they won the last one means that they’ve had their blip/fluke for the time being and another one isn’t due for a good 2 or 3 years.
They have a new manager in place. As we discovered back in April the “new manager bounce” is something to be wary of. However, given that Gus Poyet literally lost his previous job for (allegedly) shitting in the opposition dressing room I’d be surprised if they experience another such “bounce”. Would anyone in their right mind seriously encourage any bounce-related behaviour from someone when there’s such an obvious risk of, for want of a better term, “splatter impact”?
On a similarly distasteful note, we have the prospect of the home fans to consider here. The “cauldron of noise”. The fervent atmosphere whipped up by Sunderland fans could intimidate our fragrant, delicate continental players and put them off their game. In fact, they have a set of fans so dispirited by their dismal start to the season that there are still tickets available for the game. This is usually their only sell-out of any season so we’re clearly looking at a deep despair here. When we arrived in similar circumstances and cuffed them 4-1 in 2006, the speed with which they collectively gave up and walked out suggests we’re only an early goal away from silencing them on Sunday, allowing us to enjoy the atmosphere of a home game as our fans make all the noise.
All of the statistics are in our favour. There should be nothing to fear and yet I’m still dreading it. Which probably demonstrates that you can never prove anything with statistics. I should know. I’m a statistician.
Author: Paul McIntosh
Follow Paul on Twitter @mcintoshpaul
You’d be forgiven for thinking Newcastle United’s only faux pas with the loan market was association with those adorable exploiters of the poor, Wonga.
Not so. In the same way our region’s most vulnerable are being stitched up by these profiteering (legal) loan sharks, Newcastle United’s recent activity in the other loan market (you know, the one that has recently brought us Loic Remy and before that, er, Zurab Khizanishvili) might be indicative of further problems.
First, a confession: I hate the loan system in the Premier League. It serves to reinforce the long-term dominance of the big clubs who can afford to farm out players to lesser clubs for “development”. When the benefits of the loan system are casually discussed by your generic pundit on TV, the positives are hammered home. Great for the young lad to get Premier League experience. Great for the owner club to get a young lad back next year who will be ready to challenge for first-team football. Great for the loaning club to get a player for a year who is better than any they could hope to sign permanently. Everyone wins.
Not really, of course. It’s all well and good if you are rich or well-stocked enough to possess what I believe fans of other clubs call “a squad”. I don’t think we’ve truly witnessed one of these on Tyneside. With “a squad” it is possible to ear-mark certain players as potential first-teamers in future years. If you have a really good squad, some of these potential first-teamers will be already good enough to go to another Premier League club and compete against your very own first-team (although not in the same match) over the course of a season. Chelsea could even afford to purchase a potential first-teamer, Romelu Lukaku, for £20m and send him out on loan for a bit of work experience at one of their Premier League “competitors”, West Brom.
Newcastle United have never loaned a player to another Premier League club in order to develop him for future use*. In recent years, the highest rung of the ladder our young talent has been loaned to is the Championship (Sammy Ameobi, Haris Vuckic and Shane Ferguson). The rest tend to knock about in Leagues One and Two and the Scottish Premier League. Adam Campbell recently spent a Friday night on the bench for Carlisle United at Colchester. James Tavernier has been on loan at five different clubs and never made it higher than League One. And while this is still patently better than reserve team football, our returning players still lack experience at the highest level and it takes serious optimism to see any of them as genuine Premier League first-team options in the future.
All of which is not a major surprise, and we’re by no means the only club in the Premier League not to be brimming with talent beyond the first-team (or sometimes even in the first-team). When we do stumble across a prodigy in our midst, he’ll be propelled into first-team action and given a purple bib before we even think of giving him a season at Crystal Palace. In short, we’re stuck with what we have, while the bigger boys use the system to create a wider long-term gap between them and the rest of us.
So while we’re a victim of our own lack of success in terms of outgoing loans, at least we can exercise some control on those coming in. And traditionally we haven’t been too bad at this.
There are certain clubs in the Premier League who serve their Top 6 masters impeccably in the loan system, and thankfully we haven’t been one of the worst offenders. My Sunderland-supporting comrades place themselves as particular losers in this game. In recent seasons, Sunderland have loaned (and subsequently failed to buy) numerous players including Danny Welbeck, Jonny Evans and Danny Rose. All three served Sunderland well for a season and went back to their real clubs a better player. In each case, Sunderland either weren’t permitted, or failed to request, an “option to buy”. Sunderland had to replace each of them with someone new the following year (in the case of Rose, still have to), while Man United and Spurs all of a sudden had a viable Premier League prospect to play. And so the cycle continues.
They’re far from alone. West Brom had an impressive season last year on the back of Romelu Lukaku’s goals. They adapted their style to suit Lukaku and now… well, he’s not there anymore, their chosen replacement Nicolas Anelka wants to retire from professional football, and they’ve loaned another striker (Matej Vydra) who in all likelihood someone bigger and better will buy next summer if he turns out to be any good. Bolton had a six-month fling with Daniel Sturridge which everybody raved about. They didn’t replace him and got relegated the following season. Brilliant.
Anyway, more fool them, the dicks. Newcastle United’s transfer policy over the past few seasons has been to shy away from such short-termism. Profit can only be made on something you own, after all. And credit where it’s due, in this Mike Ashley is right. To make a lasting challenge on the Top 6, you need to do so with your players, not theirs. Rather than filling first-team places with one-season loans, we bought young, hungry, relatively inexpensive players from the continent. In May 2012, after unexpectedly finishing 5th in the Premier League, this policy was lauded by everyone – aided in no small part by an easy comparison with a failing Liverpool side who had spunked millions on homegrown trundlers like Stewart Downing, Jordon Henderson and our very own Andy Carroll.
This policy meant that short-term loans were rare. We have brought in only two players on loan since our promotion in 2009-10: Hatem Ben Arfa, who we were able to make permanent and who sparkled in the second-half of our best campaign in almost ten years and… Stephen Ireland who, er, we didn’t make permanent and we can all agree that that was fine too. Things are a bit different now. We stalled last summer, only bringing in Vurnon Anita – a talented technical midfielder who clearly still baffles Alan Pardew. We played, and were managed, incredibly poorly for the vast majority of last season, despite a brief flurry in the winter following the signings of a new French contingent.
Off-field, there’s a new cowboy in town, Joe Kinnear, whose only tangible action so far has been to secure a loan deal for Loic Remy. Of the deal, he said this recently in the Daily Mirror:
“If [Loic] scores goals and does well for us, Alan will be happy with our end of the deal; the player will be happy because he will come into contention for a World Cup place with France; and if both those things happen, Remy will go back to QPR as a World Cup player with a higher value than when he joined them, so everyone will come out of it well.”
It hasn’t been confirmed, but it looks like Joe didn’t quite get around to that “option to buy” at the end of the loan.
“Everyone will come out of it well”.
Yes. For one year. Loic Remy appears to be a very good player, and arguably the best fit of all our possible forward targets given his ability to play out wide, too. He could be a revelation this season. He could be the reason we finish 14th rather than 17th. However, if we can’t turn this into a permanent transfer next summer, the exercise is ultimately futile (save for netting us an extra million or so for finishing a few places higher). He’ll need to be replaced. We’ll need to find someone as good. Joe Kinnear will again be the man to find him. The cycle will continue.
The impact of this transfer window will go a long way to determining how Newcastle perform this season, but it is not the only factor. Alan Pardew should have been relieved of his duties as soon as the season ended, and replaced with a coach capable of managing what evidently still is a talented group of players. That didn’t happen though, and in his infinite wisdom the owner decided to tweak how we do our transfer business instead by employing one of modern football’s most out-of-touch men into one of its most in-vogue roles.
The latest rumoured “fallback” option of a short-term loan for Demba Ba if the Bafetimbi Gomis deal falls through suggests that as a result of our (his) lack of foresight and ability to secure deals early, we may be more susceptible to this kind of deal in future. It would be a real disappointment to go from being a trendsetter in the transfer market as recently as two years ago, to another one of the also-rans, making short-term deals to our long-term detriment. With Kinnear as Director of Football, sadly that looks inevitable.
*We did once loan Lomano LuaLua to Portsmouth to hasten his exit. We let him play against us and he scored the equalizer and did loads of cartwheels. None of that “refuse to celebrate” nonsense for him.
Author: Chris Coyne
Follow Chris on Twitter @coynan
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