On 13th of August 2011, Newcastle United kick-off their second consecutive season back in the Premier League, a day short of 12 weeks since we last kicked a competitive ball, in the 3-3 draw against West Brom.
Survival was the prime season objective last time around, with NUFC never really staring with worry at the trap door – however this time around the objective can be wildly construed as anything from survival to a top 10 finish, with expectation and opinion varying hugely from fan to fan, pundit to pundit. Our previous, and successful, campaign may still be recent memory but the mere two and a half months that separate the new from the last have been some of the most radical and revolutionary in recent history – even by NUFC’s standards. Here we take the unenviable task of trying to evaluate the events and, in our usual preference, aim to make more sense of how the events will affect our prospects where they matter – on the field.
Pre-season preparations began with the first team being called back for training on the 4th of July, with a near full six week schedule planned with the objective of turning those plump and in a drunken daze from holiday into a fully fit and functional unit ready to succeed. And it’s fair to say on review, the preparations have been very disappointing with a mixed bag of on the field performances being completely overshadowed (again) by affairs off the pitch. The problems have been well documented already: numerous failed attempts to strengthen the squad with new blood, a sequence of visa denials for our USA tour, the (still ongoing) Joey Barton saga, and the elephant in the room of Jose Enrique’s much expected departure. All of these have undoubtedly provided a negative effect on the seamlessness of preparations – taking the attention of at least one eye off the pitch.
And indeed, on the pitch things could have been better – most obviously with the visa issues preventing Cabaye and Barton travelling to the USA and thus missing three valuable games to play along-side Tiote. Couple this with the injury to Ben Arfa and Tiote then having his own visa issue whilst attempting to return to the UK meaning our first choice midfield has, and will only have had, one opportunity (against Darlington) to play together – out of our six friendlies. This might not seem much, but given our notable change in system from 442 to 4411 / 4231, and the pivotal role Cabaye promises to play within it, a greater length of playing time together could have been very beneficial in us making a good start to the season. However, the true effect of this remains hypothetic until the season starts – Cabaye and the midfield could seamlessly click (like Tiote’s introduction last season), but the insurance of playing time wouldn’t have hurt… Rounding up the negatives – NUFC have suffered the usual pre-season casualties with Danny Guthrie, the promising Shane Ferguson and the potentially key Hatem Ben Arfa suffering significant injuries that rule all out of contention for the start of the season – although all will be looking to make a recovery in reasonable time.
It hasn’t all been disastrous though, at least this time the club had the decency to make a significant portion of their transfer activity before the pre-season started – giving a more clear indication of what squad would be available for the start of the season and allowing the recruits plenty of time to settle in and adapt to the area, and to their new team mates, particularly those making the move from France. The importance of this certainly should not be underplayed and the club would do well to adopt this approach more stringently. And it stays positive – despite the hindrances eluded to earlier, a large section of the squad has managed to get good pitch time – with most looking on course to be in good condition for the season opener. Perhaps the most encouraging factor to have come of the friendly fixtures, including those of the reserves and the XI’s have been the performances and enthusiasm shown by the returning Dan Gosling, and youngsters Haris Vuckic and Sammy Ameobi. Dare we not repeat the ill-fated ‘like a new singing’ line about these lads, but they certainly have made a good case for their involvement next season and could add much needed depth into the squad in their respective positions.
In summary, with a degree of adequate administration, luck, and a lack of player twitter accounts, this could have been a fairly successful pre-season. And although the negatives have been far more notable and publicised, there have been a number of understated positives to take from it.
State of First team Squad:
In: Yohan Cabaye, Demba Ba, Sylvan Marveaux, Mehdi Abeid, Gabriel Obertan*
Out: Kevin Nolan, Wayne Routledge, Sol Campbell and (ahem) Shefki Kuqi.
Possible Departures: Jose Enrique, Joey Barton, Alan Smith.
Farmed: Lua-Lua (Brighton – 6 months).
Currently injured: Danny Guthrie, Shane Ferguson, Hatem Ben Arfa.
(*TBC at time of writing).
On paper, it’s hard to argue that the first team squad is anything other than stronger than it ended last season. However, it would be difficult not to surpass that standard – with injuries and player sales seeing NUFC limp across the line after a promising first half of the season. The midfield area has seen a significant improvement with the additions of Marveaux and Cabaye, and Ben Arfa plus Gosling recovering from their long term injuries – how well 3 of those 4 resist further serious or regular injury being the only factor for worry. The much promised ‘no. 9’ striker has failed to materialise and at the time of writing we remain in the hunt – as it stands our realistic striking options are Lovenkrands, Ameobi (snr), Leon Best and our only new addition in that department, Demba Ba. Combined, they managed a distinctly average 25 goals last season, in 58 individual starts, although Ba and Best together managed a less shabby 13 goals in 19 individual starts. Although we’re in full and undeniable recognition that the forward line needs more bite (say a 15 goal a season striker), it isn’t quite in the same desperation as that of the left back berth…
Jose Enrique remains the only recognised natural left back in the first team squad, and should his much expected transfer away come to fruition, the squad will be left to ponder at least a run until January with either Tamas Kadar, Shane Ferguson, Ryan Taylor or James Perch filling in – in an inconsistent defence that is certainly worrying, and needs addressing desperately. Finally, between the posts, Pardew has the unenviable task of choosing one from three ‘keepers, all with equal claim to be no.1 – Steve Harper possibly having to concede his dominance on the position with Fraser Forster hungry for first team involvement after his season long loan at Celtic and Tim Krul seeking more after his recent elevation to the Dutch national squad. Arguably, if this situation is not handled correctly it could cause problems – the pressure of knowing replacements are ready waiting in the wings should a mistake occur either having a drastic positive or negative effect on concentration. We only have to look back to the issue the English national team had over many recent years in that position as to how damaging it can become.
Key men: The midfield triangle of Yohan Cabaye, Cheick Tiote and Hatem Ben Arfa. Keep these fit and on form they have the potential to dictate a game, against the best the league has to offer.
NUFC flipped largely between 442 and 4132 last season, with both formations being well suited to the players available and having a reasonable amount of success. Since then Yohan Cabaye has arrived – a self professed deep lying creator who will be likely seen to sit alongside the tenacious Cheick Tiote – and Ben Arfa has returned from long term injury. With Pardew having already stated he sees the latter as being a ‘traditional number 10’, it suggests a midfield triangle of Tiote, Cabaye and Ben Arfa will be adopted. Beyond that NUFC can, at present, call upon an array of midfield talent such as Dan Gosling, Joey Barton etc – given NUFC’s options in the midfield area (and lack of them up front) it would be illogical to see a formation chosen that didn’t take advantage of the riches of central midfield resource.
Option 1 (left) has been adopted largely during the friendly fixtures and appears the preference of Pardew. Option 2 (right) suggests an alternative, in which a stronger presence up front could maintain pressure on teams who come to St James and sit deep. Naturally, option 2 would benefit hugely from the addition of a new striker.
Option 1 (left) could be adopted against strong opposition where domination in midfield can frustrate and nullify whilst taking pressure off our defence – more than achievable with the excellent midfield options available. Option 2 (right) would be a standard line-up to adopt, suitible for most Premier League opposition.
Summary and Expectations:
As with any season, despair can turn into hope, and the exact opposite, within months, even weeks. Certainly, with the closing of the transfer window remaining in its insanely scheduled August 31st slot, it is uncertain whether the squad will be stronger, or weaker by the time we have already played three Premier League games of the new season. The off the field events and the distinct lack of capital outlay from the Carroll transfer funds have undoubtedly cast a large shadow of doubt and de-motivation across the supporters ranks, but it has overlooked the fact that the squad has been improved from the one which finished last season – the case is a step forward has been made, but not a step as big as we were all hoping. Despite the improvements in midfield, two huge questions remain unaddressed from last season – who is going to score the goals and how are we going to stop them going in? The former holds some promise with the attacking options in midfield – certainly the return of Ben Arfa, but the latter remains a startling worry and the prospect of Enrique’s departure only serves to weaken a defence that shipped 57 goals last season. But, we remain positive that the necessary strengthening will still arrive, even if later than preferred – after all, the signings of Tiote and Ben Arfa were both made after last season had began.
In all honesty, no great shakes are expected – NUFC have more than enough ability on paper to be comfortable from relegation, but lack strength in key areas (at present) to significantly better last season’s 12th place finale. Much of our success will again, we fear, come down to the professionalism, grit and determination the squad as a whole shows – and even with the departure of the inspirational Nolan, there are plenty in the ranks who are determined to prove themselves to the world. If this does happen, I believe a top ten finish is more than achievable – but a more realistic expectation would probably see a finale between the positions of 11th and 14th, and our Premier League status consolidated. We can only stay positive off the field and behind the lads on it… Ho’way the mags!