Dec 23, 2013

The Dreaded January Window

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When I was about eight years old I fell over playing football in the street (for the record, we really were using jumpers for goalposts. Marvellous. Isn’t it?). Now, all these years later, I can remind myself of that moment whenever I want simply by looking at the big scar on my kneecap. I can look at it, see that it’s a scar, and accept that it happened nearly thirty years ago. The scar is my little reminder, my souvenir if you like.

What that scar reminds me of is that if you’re going to play football on a gravelly road and you hit the deck, you’re going to end up cutting yourself. It doesn’t tell me that every time I play football I’m going to knacker my knee. It doesn’t tell me that I’m going to knacker my knee at the same time every year, either.

So here we are at last. The bit where I start talking about Newcastle United and stop using my knee as some sort of storytelling device – although I absolutely reserve the right to use my knee as an analogy again in the future.

As we approach the January transfer window I’m beginning to recognise the sort of typical grumblings of certain section of Newcastle fans that seem to happen every year at around this time. “We’re a selling club – just you watch, Ashley will sell Cabaye and cash in on this good run of form”, “We won’t sign anyone in January – more likely we’ll sell Krul, Cabaye and Tiote!”, “It’s the same every January. We always sell Cabaye in January and I bet we do it again this year”.

I’m prepared to accept that the last one might be a slip of the tongue but I did hear someone say it and therefore it qualifies for a mention in my Knee Journal.

We seem to have acquired this reputation as being a club that sees every January as an opportunity to shoot itself in the foot. A club that sees a promising start to the season as a chance to offload a few top players and cash in while the going’s good, even though it’ll wreck our prospects of a strong league finish.

Every year this gets mentioned and every year I’m left bewildered as to why people start thinking this way. Mike Ashley has been running this club for six January transfer windows now. In that time we’ve sold four senior players (whilst signing 14 of them!). Given & N’Zogbia left in 2009 as the club hurtled trapdoor-wards. Demba Ba left at the start of this year when we were powerless to stop him due to the clause in his contract. The only other major January departure in Mike Ashley’s reign is in 2011 when we sold Andy Carroll. For some reason the utter shock of that news seems to continue to leave some of our fans traumatised. The scar (there we go, there’s the scar reference) seems to serve only as a reminder of how bad it felt at the time to lose Carroll. To the extent that people seem determined to see no positives and to search for reasons to be pessimistic at every turn.

Why not dwell on all of the great, great things to come out of our Januarys under Mike Ashley? First things first, we got THIRTY FIVE MILLION QUID for a striker who has subsequently gone on to score 13 league goals in 68 league games. We signed up the likes of Nolan, Ryan Taylor, Lovenkrands, Simpson, Williamson, Ben Arfa and Cisse. January was even the month when we got to experience the gleeful joy of seeing Geremi and Xisco leave the club.

January last year even seems to have become tarnished in the eyes of some. We signed five Frenchmen, they didn’t settle instantly and as a result our relegation scrap went on to the penultimate weekend of the season. No matter that four of them have played a huge part in what has been a fantastic recent run of form, let’s condemn them for being signed in the middle of a bad season.

This season has been much, much better so far than any of us can have expected. Mike Ashley may have made some decisions in his NUFC tenure that range from weird to disastrous but history has shown that January seems to bring out his best side.

It’s also been a great season for Alan Pardew so far. Tactically he’s made huge, huge progress from the struggles in 2012-13. We’re showing more flexibility, the substitutions are better and the likes of Sissoko and Anita are really being played to their strengths. So let’s give praise where it’s due. Let’s not pounce on Pardew saying “We might not sign anyone in January” or “We may well sign someone in January”. All he’s doing there is playing his cards close to his chest, as 99% of other managers also do.

Maybe we’ll sign no one next month. Maybe we will sell a star player as the grumblers are forever insisting we will. Maybe we’ll sell Cabaye just like we did last January and probably will next year too. However, maybe we’ll enjoy this fantastic run of form a whole lot more if we just relax a bit, enjoy the football and approach January with a bit of optimism, as history tells us we perhaps ought to.

Don’t let people tell you this is the most wonderful time of the year. January is the month we should all be waiting for!

Merry Christmas, folks.


 

Author: Paul McIntosh

Follow Paul on Twitter @mcintoshpaul

Dec 3, 2013

Accept yourself

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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.

Nov 13, 2013

that’s enterainment

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.

Oct 30, 2013

I See The World In One Dimension

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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

Derby Day Dissection

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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

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