This time last year Newcastle were on an upward trajectory. They’d built on a good start based on defensive stability, added some flair and clinical finishing, and maintained their position in the pack chasing the leaders. They’d found a way to play that was effective and suited the personnel, and were pushing for Champions League qualification. Punching at their weight for the first time in years, the club finally seemed to have staff in key areas who were good at their jobs and working together to achieve common goals.
All that has fallen away over the course of a season which has got worse the longer it has gone on. Even if relegation is avoided this term, a continuation of form will rule out a second escape next year. The trajectory the club is following now is one of an airliner that’s lost its bearings, powerdiving towards the sea. We’re assured those on board aren’t following the instruments blissfully unaware of what’s approaching, but are they looking out of the windows powerless and panicking? Either way a change of direction is paramount.
Those few short months have changed the club for the worse. A disappointing summer ended with insufficient reinforcements added to allow the squad to challenge in all competitions. Put another way, the deficiencies of the squad meant that performances in one competition had to suffer to enable progress in another. Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse were swapped from last season, Cisse playing wide with Ba central, in an attempt to keep Ba happy. The switch wasn’t successful in terms of results, and Ba left in January anyway, by which time Cisse had lost the form which had made the side so dangerous in the second half of last season. This contributed to Alan Pardew’s major problem, that tactics which had worked well last season stopped being as effective. Playing on the break away from home failed when at one end of the field the defence was less stable and thus less solid, and at the other the attack’s efficiency, the ability to take more chances than they missed, was reduced too. Newcastle’s away form has been woeful. One win all season in the league, 9 points from a possible 51, is the record of a team not just in trouble but dangling below the trapdoor. Without the three last gasp league game winners at home they would already be deep in trouble.
The heavy derby defeat has focused attention on Alan Pardew. He’s claimed the criticism both of himself and the team since has been unfair. I agree in the sense that a derby thrashing like that necessarily results in reactions being over the top. It doesn’t follow that severe criticism is unjustified however, just that the end of the world many speak of is yet to happen. My own experience of the criticism flying around is that it’s mainly aimed at him, though the players haven’t been entirely immune. We have good players, it’s generally agreed, but we’re regularly outplayed by sides which look less accomplished on paper. This strand of thinking concludes that this has to be the manager’s fault. A new manager would provide a silver bullet for the problems, either through being more tactically astute or by motivating the side better.
As far as motivation goes, good players don’t need a Churchill speech barked at them and to kick a chicken round the dressing room before they’re effective. They just need to be presented with a coherent game plan which they believe in. On the other hand, as Alex Ferguson once said “A manager can talk about tactics but if the players can’t bring that inner beast out of them then he is wasting his time.” A manager isn’t responsible for dragging aggression and energy from his charges, the players themselves should be expected to provide that. Where motivation becomes a problem is when players refuse to perform for a manager they either dislike or don’t respect. Recall the change between Alan Shearer under Ruud Gullit and in Bobby Robson’s first home game in charge. Ineffective for some time transformed into 5-goal superhuman in a couple of weeks. Was the Divine Elbow not trying previously or just so exasperated with a manager he didn’t respect that he’d lost his way? I don’t think Pardew has lost his dressing room, the regularity of last-minute goals pointing towards a team trying to the last, but you’d have to be a member of that group to know for sure. The sea change in Sunderland’s results under Paulo Di Canio from the stagnation of Martin O’Neill shows what a fresh approach or a clean slate (in a footballing sense anyway) can achieve. We won’t find out in their case until next season if it’s a dead cat bounce or a sustainable improvement. My own guess is that the latter is driven in the long term by squad improvement rather than motivational techniques or tactical gambits. After all, didn’t O’Neill himself oversee a remarkable change of form on his arrival, only to see it gradually ebb away?
If that is true, don’t the players have to carry a large proportion of any can going? We’ve convinced ourselves over time that Graham Carr possesses a magic touch in the transfer market, and taking into account the amount of money most of our recent signings have cost he probably does. Could it be that they’re not quite as good as we all think though? Players have been bought, albeit too late to allow an assault on the whole season, without making enough of an impact.
In all this Pardew doesn’t escape censure. He hasn’t been able to gain enough of an improvement from the new recruits. An over-cautious approach invites bad teams up the pitch to attack us. A refusal to play some players or to drop others means we rarely have an-form 11 on the field. An insistence on sticking to favoured formations when the personnel they suit are unavailable has been unproductive. He’s unable to change tactics during a game when they evidently aren’t working. Notwithstanding this, the suggestion that all fault can be laid at his door is unrealistic. I expect him to still be in charge in August, so long as relegation is avoided, the club having repeatedly stated its aim of stability. For the club to prosper next season, there needs to be a more successful summer than last year in terms of recruitment, the players need to step up their level of performance, and Pardew himself needs to address his own weaknesses. It’s asking a lot, but if any of those three strands of the club fail to deliver than change will become necessary.
Author: Mark Brophy
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