This end of season review is part 1 of 3 and will reflect on everything Newcastle United in the 2011/12 season. Unlike some, we decided to wait until the season was complete before conducting our post-mortem. Beginning with the team and management:
High point of the season
RD: From a season in which we exceeded expectations on a regular basis, and with so many to choose from, it’s difficult to pick just one high point. Ryan Taylor over the wall, Jose Enrique’s stint in goal on his return to St James’, Phil Jones’ putting us 3-0 up against Man United (h) off his forever gurning face, or the 3-0 victory over Stoke (h) to all but secure European football, to name but a few. Therefore, I’m going to throw a curveball and pick a high point that came off the pitch: Alan Pardew’s end of season phone-in interview with BBC Newcastle.
Recorded on Friday 11th May 2012, on the same day he was awarded Barclays Manager of the season and with European football guaranteed, Pardew gave us, the Newcastle fans, an hour of audible bliss. Alongside his right hand man, John Carver, Pardew was as enchanting, honest and media-savvy as we have come to know, but this interview was unlike the others. Somehow it was better. Far better. There was a spring in our manager’s step, his guard was down. To coin a favourite of Pardew, in using alcohol-based similes, if his previous phone-in interviews have been like a fine red wine, this was champagne stuff.
Pardew invited questions from callers and answered each one as candidly as he could. He spoke openly on the likely departures of Danny Guthrie and Danny Simpson, and his transfer targets. But it was the way he spoke about the players, the club and the area that had me beaming like Ashley Young at an outstretched leg. As I said on Twitter at the time, ‘he gets it’. He gets what makes this club, the fans and the city tick in a way that others that have went before him – Souness, Gullit and Allardyce – didn’t.
Pardew and the aforementioned Simpson were ‘tight’. He loves Demba Ba, to paraphrase: he’s the Madonna to Cisse’s Lady Gaga. He loves Shola Ameobi. I mean, he really, really loves Shola Ameobi – his ‘most important player’ – a man after my own heart. And again, there were little insights into the club that keep us fans involved at a level that we haven’t been witness to previously: that the club has been taking advice off Tony Pulis and Stoke on the logistics of the upcoming Europa League campaign, and that Santon has developed a habit of greeting people in Geordie, “Alright, son?”. Canny.
An excellent season encapsulated in an hour of radio, by the man largely responsible for it. Superb.
Smith: For myself it’s difficult to look too far beyond the 6 game winning streak towards the end of the season. The lengthy unbeaten run at the beginning of the season was superb on paper, but with so many games being scrappy victories and backs-to-the-wall draws it was difficult to enjoy that run far beyond the points on the board. The winning streak showed NUFC in a light that we’ve not seen for some time – a swagger of attractive attacking football with goals galore, including the gem that was ‘that’ goal by Hatem Ben Arfa against Bolton.
Those six short games saw us score 13 goals, concede only one and harboured the iconic win over Liverpool, the break-neck counter attacking win over West Brom at the Hawthorns and the cantering win over Stoke, where 3-0 was a flattering scoreline for the visitors. The run turned prospective European football into a near certainty, but paradoxically dangled the carrot of a Champions League dream so close it couldn’t be ignored. Our best run in decades – and one done *almost* entirely in style.
Low point of the season
RD: Unlike last season, when some off-field decisions threatened to disrupt the season half way through it – namely the sale of Andy Carroll and dismissal of Chris Hughton – there have been few low points to choose from this season. Off the field, the renaming of St James’ Park to The Sports Direct Arena left a bit of a sour taste in the mouth, but the club is being run in a much more cerebral manner now and if that’s my only complaint, it’s a far cry to the many I had only three seasons ago under the same owner.
On the field, again there were few low points; however, there were a trio of archetypal ‘Newcastle of old’ collapses away from home in the league: Fulham (a) 2-5, Wigan (a) 0-4, and the one that pips it as my low point: Tottenham (a) 0-5. It feels somewhat cruel highlighting a low point in what was an incredible season, but those are the rules.
Going into the game, we had won our last 3 home games versus Manchester United, QPR and Aston Villa and had won our last away game 2-0 at Blackburn. Yet, our previous away fixture to that had seen us lose 5-2 in London to Fulham. We should have known what was coming. Pardew, perhaps naively, set his side up in an attacking 4-4-2 side to ‘get at’ the White Hart Lane side. However, already missing our usual central midfield pairing of Tiote and Cabaye, this left us exposed in midfield and on the flanks, which Tottenham, buoyed by the return of Harry Redknapp, clinically exploited. After only 34 minutes, Tottenham were already 4-0 up and the game was effectively over as a contest.
Smith: Brighton in the FA Cup was as low as it got for me in a season of very few lows. Although not as demoralising as the defeat to the poisonous rabble from Stevenage the season previous, hallmarks to that crash were startingly similar – a toothless display leading to a whimpering exit, followed this time by a highly debatable retrospective 3 game ban for Yohan Cabaye, much like Cheick Tiote’s highly debateable red in the same competition the season previous.
Best game of the season
RD and Smith: Liverpool (h) 2-0. Very slightly edging the 3-0 home victory over Manchester United was the 2-0 home victory over Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool. Prior to the game we’d recorded victories over Norwich (h) 1-0 and steamrolled West Brom (a) 3-1. We were just building up a nice little bit of belief, but remained cautious about a home fixture against Liverpool, who were only points behind us at the time, and the first return to St James’ for Jose Enrique and Andy Carroll. Yet, events were to unfold in perfect and amusing fashion for Newcastle on this gloriously sunny Sunday afternoon.
Andy Carroll booked early on for diving, when it would have been easier to slot the ball into the empty net. Doing a Chopra, perhaps? Cisse putting Newcastle into the lead with a typically accurate header, followed by a well taken second later in the game that involved 9 of Newcastle’s 11 players (documented in aesthetic fashion here by @tt9m). The fun was still to come, though, as Pepe Reina headbutted James Perch and received a red card for doing so. Dalglish wandered onto the pitch, only to be shooed off by his captain and Liverpool, having used all three subs, have to ask Jose Enrique to take his place in the goal. Not an enjoyable afternoon for our former left back, who had previously been loudly serenaded with a chant reminding him of our lofty league position.
We handled the pressure superbly and in the end made the result look comfortable, as we did on so many other occasions throughout the season. Like the Sunderland game, a defeat could have changed the course of the season but a victory helped to build momentum as we went on another long unbeaten run.
Worst game of the season
RD: Swansea (h) 0-0. We went into this game having picked up only 1 point from the last 12 available, courtesy of 2 defeats in our last 2 fixtures – Norwich (a) 2-4 and Chelsea (h) 0-2 – and previous tricky back-to-back games away to the Manchester clubs that only yielded 1 point – City (a) 1-3 and United (a) 1-1. A home fixture against newly promoted Swansea looked like a good opportunity to get our season back on track.
The Swans, as they did later in the season when the sides met at the Liberty Stadium, attempted to suck the life out of the game with their brand of possession football, which more often than not plays out like a game of Rugby: MUST NOT PASS FORWARD. Newcastle, struggling to find space in the crowded central midfield area, often played down the wings and attempted 41 crosses into the box, but could not find a breakthrough. Swansea, to their credit, defended well and took the point that their defensive set-up had quite clearly set out to achieve. A tale told by the away side having only 3 shots to Newcastle’s 22. Not the worst result of the season, but in terms of entertainment and outcome it was incredibly frustrating.
Smith: Again, after the season we’ve had the options are limited, however the one I found most difficult to swallow was the 5-2 drubbing from Fulham. Having totally dominated the first half and finding ourselves 1-0 up away from home, it was expected we would have looked to protect that lead as had been done to great effect in a number of other away games previous. Instead, we maintained a high line and ignored the very blunt indication of Fulham hitting the ball long for their fast strikers to chase. It took just 16 minutes to concede four goals and turn a welcome away result into a collapse. Definitely a game from which to learn lessons.
Best result of the season
RD and Smith: Sunderland (a) 1-0. In only the second game of the season, Newcastle made the short trip to Wearside to face Sunderland in the Wear-Tyne derby.
We came into the game on the back of a disjointed and unconvincing pre-season and, after a 0-0 draw at home to Arsenal in the season’s opener, it was uncertain quite what we were going to get from Newcastle in the derby. Sunderland, meanwhile, also picked up a point against ‘top four’ opposition in their opening game, with a deserved 1-1 draw against Liverpool at Anfield. Their mood was upbeat. We were told, by pundits and fans alike, how well Steve Bruce had bought – Brown, O’Shea, Larsson, Wickham – and how this time they were going to turn us over.
Sunderland began the brighter of the sides and shaded the first half, but were lucky not to concede a penalty and go down to ten men when Larsson handled on the line. Nevertheless, we were to have success from a set piece later in the game when stand-in left back Ryan Taylor hit one over the wall and into the corner of Mignolet’s net to put us 1-0 up. And that’s how it stayed until full time. Newcastle improved as the game went on and comfortably saw out the game, repelling Sunderland’s high balls into the area in the final 10 minutes.
Not the prettiest of wins, certainly. But there’s nothing like a win and clean sheet over your local rivals to build confidence, which we’re in no doubt was a huge factor in generating the momentum to go the first 11 league games unbeaten.
Worst result of the season
RD: There were a few heavy defeats on the road this season – the aforementioned trips to Tottenham, Fulham and Wigan – however, these were all teams that were playing relatively well when we faced them and, as such, the game that jumps out at me as worst result of the season is the 2-2 vs Wolves at home.
We cruised into a 2-0 lead after goals from Cisse and Gutierrez and, against the perennial relegation zone tenants, should have went on to win the game. Yet, somehow we conspired to allow Wolves back into the game who levelled the scores with 2 goals in 16 minutes in the second half. It was a remiss performance by those in black and white in the second half and certainly felt like 2 points dropped, rather than 1 gained. However, we are all entitled to our off days and, thankfully, this was just a minor blip in an otherwise superb home campaign.
Smith: The heavy defeats mentioned earlier were undoubtedly very difficult to take, but were more often than not dished out on days when results elsewhere were favourable and damage limited. However, maintaining a theme of draws, the Sunderland 1-1 draw at St James’ was bitterly disappointing given the combination of numerical advantage and a clear superior footballing ability on the field.
Yes, the dramatic late equaliser may have broken makem hearts for a first win on Tyneside in 12 long years, but it wasn’t much more than a face-saver for Newcastle. What was perhaps most disappointing was falling so easily for Sunderland’s blunt tactic of sitting very deep and breaking, effectively wasting the entire first half being dragged down to a kick and lump festival in the rain. That draw came directly after the deflating draw at home to Wolves, and was flanked either side by North London losses to Spurs and Arsenal – three very winnable points missed.
Best managerial decision
RD: Whether it was by accident or design, the best managerial decision in my opinion is moving Hatem Ben Arfa to the right wing. Up until the QPR fixture at home in January, Ben Arfa had largely been used in a central role off a lone forward which Pardew had said on many occasions was where he wanted to deploy him and was where he could see him getting into double figures for goals. However, his time on the pitch was limited, due to a number of reasons – some that we covered here – and he had only managed 1 goal, away to Bolton.
In the QPR fixture, Yohan Cabaye was stretchered off on 25 minutes and Ben Arfa came on in his place. Ryan Taylor moved inside to partner Danny Guthrie and Jonas Gutierrez filled his usual role on the left, this meant that Ben Arfa lined up in an unfamiliar position on the right. Again, whether this was by design or a lack of bodies, I’m not sure. Perhaps I’m being disingenuous to Pardew – after all he did show his tactical nous in changing to a 4-3-3 later in the season to utilise Ben Arfa in the wide right forward role – whatever the reason, it proved to be a masterstroke.
Ben Arfa fast learned how to turn playing as an inverted winger to his advantage, frequently cutting inside onto his left and using his pace to devastating effect. At times, he was unplayable. He went on to score another 4 goals – 3 of which he cut in from the right and blasted home with this left, the other his wonderful solo goal against Bolton – and was instrumental in providing another dimension in our end of season run that saw us achieve 5th spot. The right move for Ben Arfa and the right move for the team.
Smith: Whilst in particular agreement with my counterpart over the management of Hatem Ben Arfa, instead I’ve chose the numerous tactical decisions made which facilitated our 3-1 win at Stoke, in October. What made this victory particularly pleasing was for every mistake which had been made in our 4-0 reverse on the same ground a season earlier, there was a lesson patently learned and counter tactic deployed.
Newcastle lined up with a high line to squeeze Stoke’s forwards and gather knock downs, they identified Jermaine Pennant as their only source of consistent delivery to the front line and allowed Jonas Guiterrez to abandon his wing role to nullify Pennant alongside Ryan Taylor. We countered quickly through Obertan’s blistering pace and benefited from the ruthless finishing of Ba. We took time with every throw-in and, infamously, demanded the towel on every occasion – frustrating the crowd and crucially bringing Stoke deep back into their own half on a number of occasions, to prevent them building pressure.
From tactical disaster to tactical victory within the space of 8 months – a result which was every bit as valuable for points and goals as it was for morale.
Worst managerial decision
RD: Fulham (a) 2-5 and the high defensive line. I can’t think of another way to put it, so.. to use a well-worn football cliché, this was one of those games of two halves. We were comfortably in control of the game in the first half, knocking the ball around effortlessly and took a deserved lead on the stroke of half time with a stunning strike from Danny Guthrie. Yet, what was to unfold in the second half was probably the most testing 45 minutes that I’ve endured as a Newcastle fan this season.
After conceding an equaliser in the 52nd minute, via a Danny Murphy penalty, we simply fell apart. The fleet-footed Andy Johnson caused no end of problems with his pace, while Clint Dempsey was typically efficient in front of goal. Yet the most frustrating aspect was that the majority of Fulham’s goals were because our set-up and game plan was too easy to exploit, rather than the opposition’s creativity.
It became a case of déjà-vu as our defence pushed up high, continually leaving space in behind for Murphy to play in one of his teammates. 1-1 fast turned to 1-4 and a winnable game was suddenly beyond reach. Of course, it’s not all a result of tactics, it could be argued that it was a bad day at the office, but I can’t help but feel that if a deeper defensive line was adopted a defeat could have been avoided.
Smith: As an equivalent, disastrous, alternative to my counterpart’s answer, I’ve chosen the attacking line-up in our 5-0 loss to Tottenham. In a very bad example of playing the occasion, not the game, Tottenham came into this game with manager ‘arry Redknapp having been cleared from tax evasion charges only three days earlier and subsequently linked with the England manager’s role on the same day. The entire Spurs team was on a high and had only lost one of their previous 10 fixtures going into this game.
Newcastle should have been wary but instead Alan Pardew declared that we would be travelling there to “have a go”, opening our play up and abandoning our more familiar methods of cautious play away from home. A midfield duo of Guthrie and Perch were completely overran, Gutierrez and Obertan offered no outlet and the defence was constantly retreating towards our own goal – resulting in Newcastle being four goals down with only 34 minutes gone.
Nothing should be taken away from how good Tottenham, and in particular Emmanuel Adebayor, performed that day, but the ease in which they thundered into their four goal lead was entirely facilitated by a disappointing error of strategy.
Areas for improvement
RD: In terms of squad improvement, it’s fairly clear that if Simpson does leave, as expected, we will need at least one recruit at full back. New signing Romain Amalfitano, alongside promising youngsters Mehdi Abeid and Haris Vuckic, should help to cover for the likely departure of Danny Guthrie. Meanwhile, cover at centre back is still needed as it is up front should Demba one depart.
On the pitch, although we’ve generally been consistent, there have been a handful of games where a lack of concentration for a sustained period (I’m hesitant to use complacency) has cost us any chance of a points return. In each of the away games against Fulham, Tottenham, Wigan and Everton, we conceded 2 or more goals in a short period, which is a habit that needs to be rid of.
Perhaps one solution to this is squad rotation and resting players, given that Pardew generally picked his strongest available side for each game, especially considering that we could have up to 17 extra games in the Europa League. I would like to see the youngsters/squad players used more frequently as first team players begin to tire, rather than when they are just unavailable, in what could be an arduous upcoming campaign.
Smith: Beyond the aforementioned issues with squad size and coping with the addition of European football, on the field I believe there could be improvements in our consistency regarding our organisation and tempo. The performance of Everton in the final game of the season and that of Manchester City at St James’ should be seen as shining examples of what we should aspire to produce on a more regular basis – in particular for ‘upper range’ fixtures such as Everton, Tottenham and beyond.
Newcastle undoubtedly contain the individual ability within their players to match all but the very best, but on occasion a failure in the collective performance of all parts can let us down – being blown away by Wigan at the DW Stadium being arguably the best example. Of course, there will be off-days, but perhaps a little more attention to the conditioning of our squad in training, and in their rotation could provide a competitive edge to maintain our lofty postition – a position our players’ ability certainly justifies.
RD and Smith: What a season. On reading the above again, it gives the impression that it was mixed – based on our best/worst, high/low structuring of questions – but, as a whole, it far exceeded the expections that either of us had going into it. As we’ve said numerous times above, because of the seemingly endless high points that we have enjoyed, there were very few negatives to pick out when reviewing this season. Put simply, the good points have outweighed the bad ten-fold.
Before the season began we predicted a slight improvement on the previous season’s position based mainly upon the turmoil pre-season, but neither of us expected that we would be in the top 6 for the majority of the season and comfortably qualifying for Europe with games to spare. Only three seasons ago, we both stood at Villa Park and watched as Newcastle meekly surrendered their Premier League status, it was unthought of that we would be travelling to Goodison Park on the final game of this season with an outside chance of qualifying for the Champions League. A truly incredible turnaround.
It really has been a team effort this season. From our performances on the pitch, through to the management, coaching staff, scouting staff and at board level; all seem to be adhering to the same ethos – value for money, enthusiasm and a will to succeed – there’s a ‘Newcastle way’ in development. And it wouldn’t be a surprise if other clubs are eyeing what we’ve done and looking at how they could emulate the ‘Newcastle way’.
Not since the Bobby Robson days has there felt such a strong bond between players, fans and management. Each player, regardless of ability, has played their part and gave their all this season. That’s all we ask. It just so happens that we are also blessed with some incredibly talented footballers, as well as being hard-working, who have gave us so many enjoyable moments this season. We’ve witnessed an array of stunning goals, performances and results. It’s been a pleasure to behold. Here’s hoping for more of the same in 2012/13.
Next up, in part 2 of our 3 part end of season review, the players…
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