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
Twelve months was all it took. From almost within grasping distance of the cloth Europe’s top table, to dangling over the pit of relegation; finger nails clawing desperately at the ground halting the descent in nick of time. Just how do you explain going from a 5th place finish to 16th in a single season? A mammoth 24pts difference in no more than twelve calendar months. Even by the unwanted historical standards of the Newcastle United rollercoaster, the ascent to descent process has been staggeringly dramatic – but as every ascent can be taken without question, every dramatic descent demands an answer. Unsurprisingly, it’s complicated…
As early as August last year it was becoming apparent that things weren’t running smoothly, but as vociferous attention was draw towards the stuttering lack of investment in the playing staff an equally troublesome problem in the way of squad fitness grew largely unnoticed. In an intentionally bullish season preview in mid-August, it was noted:
“…pre-season preparations for the squad itself have again been lacking finesse. Hastily arranged, then re-arranged fixtures altered destinations drastically – a long-haul to South Africa became neutral friendlies on European soil with a strange frequency. Add into the mix the extended holiday for those on European Championship or international duty and all of a sudden games were falling at inconvenient times to reintroduce players into the cycle. Some players, particularly Marveaux and Steven Taylor gathered valuable playing time – adversely key figures Cabaye and Ben Arfa received mere minutes and once again look unlikely to start the season fully fit.”
The problem was there to be seen, and an early season fixture pile-up involving Europa league qualifiers and a still open transfer window only served to distract eyes from that particular problem. The inability to add players capable of first team duty to the squad in the summer has been lambasted, righty, throughout the season – but through our woeful preparations a ‘paper thin’ squad simply became an ‘unfit, paper-thin squad’. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail…
With this ‘unfit, paper-thin’ squad embarking what ended up being 52 game season, in retrospect it’s little surprise the injuries came thick and fast. Of the 15 remaining players that travelled to Everton on the final game of the 2011/12 season, ten (2/3) suffered injuries during this season which kept them out for more than two consecutive games. Most, and examples come no better than Tiote, Cabaye and Ben Arfa, were plagued by injury and lack of fitness for large portions of the season, if not the entire season itself. Injuries are always to be expected – the case of the desperately unfortunate Ryan Taylor a timely reminder; however the correlation between poorly conditioned players and the extent of injuries is striking – even with the well documented demands of a Europa League campaign which regularly saw a raft of youngsters take to the field in the place of our league starters.
Heavy hope was place upon the youngsters at the fringes who held glowing individual reputations. The likes of Sammy Ameobi and Shane Ferguson had made positive cameos in the season(s) previous and were to have their big chance as the games piled up. However, the big chance turned out to be simply a big ask, as their predominant use in the cup competitions yielded a sour cocktail of nerves, positional indiscipline and flat lack of ability. Simply, it was too much, too soon – the defeats to Bordeaux and Brighton in the cups bringing heavy criticism from Pardew, which was mostly justified. However the expectation placed upon them by using so many youngsters in one go does beg the question of was much more really expected of them? Either way, the hope that the youth would shore up the squad’s lack of investment faded quickly and as injuries arrived to the senior players, the youth mostly entered the fray as nothing more than a name to fulfil the required squad quota.
Injuries were a popular gripe for reigning manager of year Alan Pardew, and at least until the influx of players in January there was sympathy for him. The cracks had spread further than he cared to admit though; a perplexing early season insistence on making a 442 formation work without the benefit of a single winger capable of providing service to the forward line (or a full team for that matter) saw play degenerate into the ugly and direct with the score-lines to match. The problem was the more Pardew persisted the more his eye was drawn away from the fundamentals of why it wasn’t working. His post-match (typically post-defeat) reasoning becoming increasingly desperate, bemoaning lack of fitness and lack of experience on an almost weekly basis in the first half of the season and European participation for almost the entire season, when viable plan A (let alone a plan B) didn’t exist. That is of course unless a viable plan A consists of firing the ball directly to the forwards from depths of 20,000 leagues under the sea…
As said, sympathies could have been offered for much of what he was having to work with, but in blunt truth NUFC were underperforming from the off and never rose above 10th position from as early as the start of October – 6 games into the season. Even when a drastic change of tact presented a Newcastle side playing the ball out from the back to comfortably beat 10 man Wigan (numerical advantage noted) the improvement in play was scrapped in favour of the kick and rush nonsense that had reaped so little reward earlier in the season. And as if the basics of play weren’t failing enough, the specifics in team selection and strategy both before and during games were frankly inexcusable – the personal pinnacle of which saw Shola Ameobi be selected, by choice, to face the carthorse that is Ian Harte in a Reading side that was as weak as any to visit St James’ Park in living memory.
But that was only the surface of the problem. On multiple occasions it appeared from a far that despite working with most of the players for well over a year, Pardew didn’t seem to understand them all quite as much as you’d expect. Natural poacher Papiss Cisse was shoved to right wing; attacker Sylvain Marveaux was deployed in a covering role against the buccaneering Leighton Baines; passing midfielder Vurnon Anita was simply played anywhere – and in one game changed positions no fewer than three time. Jonas Gutierrez and Chieck Tiote can never claim to have been in good form over a reasonable string of games this season and yet were picked without question – Vurnon Anita and Sylvian Marveaux hit form only to be benched or not involved at all.
The players themselves cannot hide either. Alan Pardew and his coaching team has rightly shouldered much of the blame, but at the times he did get the game plan right there was many where he was let down by the indiscipline and astonishing errors of his players. Cheick Tiote turned a stroll in the Stadium of Light into a flat draw; Davide Santon and Steven Taylor went hand-in-hand in personally costing a potential Europa League semi-final place at the real Stadium of Light in Lisbon. The thrashing at home to Liverpool may have had some manager input, but the surrender of the players that day stole the show at a level of effort that no professional should ever sink as low as. It could be argued that by that point even the players had just had enough of the season…
So, where did it all fall down? The simple answer is there isn’t one. Luck with injuries can be countered by the scandalous conditioning and equally scandalous lack of investment at the beginning of the season. The mid-season influx of players can go some way to arguing the squad ended the season strong enough, but how much could have seriously been expected from players that as yet haven’t even been in Newcastle upon Tyne for a full six months? Was too much hope misplaced upon progression of the youngsters or have we only served to terminally destroy the confidence of young lads who were used up in frantic desperation? As the season has drawn to a close, Alan Pardew has received a barrage of criticism – little of which he can claim to be unfair, but those he relies upon have ultimately let him down as much as the reverse is true.
As complex and intertwined the problems have been this season, the simplicity is; aesthetically, statistically and emotionally, it’s been ugly. Ultimately, fortune favoured us enough that a combination of last gasp goals and other team’s ineptitude combined to help us narrowly avoid relegation. And whether they are or not, lessons must be learned save for the next time we’re not fortunate… Good riddance to 2012/13.
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It is often said that a true measure of any person is how they respond in the face of adversity. Some of us are candid enough to admit that they don’t handle pressure particularly well. As Alan Partridge once confessed “Anyone who knows me professionally will know that under pressure my work does suffer”; yet others seem to thrive on it. At Newcastle we perhaps discovered that about many of our players in the aftermath of relegation in 2009. At that point the rats/sinking ship analogy was given a sick note and signed off for 6 months due to exhaustion from overuse. Yet as much as the likes of Duff, Owen, Martins and Bassong showed their true character, we also got to see the true mettle of players like Nolan, Smith, Coloccini, Harper, Gutierrez and others. None of them had done a great deal to impress up to that point but the strength of their character as individuals played a huge part in our ability to come straight back up and deliver a decent first season back in the top flight.
There was something of a changing of the guard in that respect just under two years ago. The “big characters” were moved on or found themselves marginalised. The nature of the dressing room changed and in Coloccini we had a captain who led with calm authority. Not one for barking instructions or putting a rocket up the arse of an underperforming team-mate, Coloccini’s style as captain has been to lead by example. Yes, we were lucky to be relatively injury-free last season but the fact is in 29 of our 38 league games we either kept a clean sheet or conceded just 1 goal. That comes from having a well-organised defensive unit. It cannot be overstated just how important Coloccini was as part of that, both as a player and as a personality.
You can even trace that form through to this season. Far be it from me to speculate as to exactly what has gone on in Coloccini’s personal life but it’s hard not to look at the Liverpool away game in early November as some sort of turning point. Up to then, while we hadn’t been brilliant this season we’d looked fairly solid at the back barring the Man United home game – but I’m going to file that one away under “Shane Ferguson at left back”.
By the time Coloccini returned to the side things were starting to unravel horribly. Shipping 20 goals in 8 games, the defence looked to be a complete shambles, with our captain being one of the worst offenders. Stories emerged about problems in his personal life and we slowly had to come to terms with the compromise that we were going to lose him at the end of the season. Gradually, with his future at the club apparently resolved, Coloccini seemed to return to form and up until his injury against Southampton, the defence started to look a little bit sturdier once again.
However, that most recent absence seemed to coincide with the team beginning to fall apart at the seams. Stories of Pardew “losing the dressing room”, cliques, instability and general unrest. In the aftermath of farcical displays against Man City, Sunderland and Liverpool the silence from the players was deafening. Pardew increasingly a lone voice at the club, aside from the obligatory “We’re gonna win next weekend for the fans” soundbites every week from Shola and Taylor. It wasn’t just media silence, either. Anyone watching the Liverpool game, for example, could clearly see that it was no ordinary defeat – this was more than just a bad day at the office. Players were hiding, they weren’t talking to each other, heads were dropping and no one on the pitch was doing anything to lift their team-mates. It dawned on me after that particular game that we’d pretty much gone through an entire season without hearing from any of the club’s nominated captains. Coloccini retreated completely post-November. Meanwhile other than a few quotes about his own personal exhaustion/depression issues, Yohan Cabaye has basically maintained a very low profile at a time when the club appeared to be in freefall.
Coloccini’s back injury, coupled with the widely-held assumption that he’ll get his wish to return to Argentina this summer, offered Cabaye a window of opportunity – an audition, if you like – to prove himself as a captain. He seems the obvious choice in so many ways: regular first choice player, at the heart of the team, respected (seemingly) by our French (and non-French) contingent – lots of boxes ticked. Yet, and perhaps I’m being harsh, I feel that he’s failed his audition. Just as the team last season seemed to reflect the calm authority of its captain, the team this season has reflected both Coloccini’s chaotic state of mind in the winter and, more recently, the apparent tendency for Cabaye’s head to drop in the face of adversity. Things might be better next season, but that Alan Partridge quote does appear to apply to Wor Yohan to some extent.
Yet, looking around the squad, the alternatives don’t exactly jump out at you. The manic, constantly suspended/injured Tiote? The chaotic gung-ho Steven Taylor? The omnipresent Shola? The barely-speaks-a-word-of-English Sissoko or Cisse? Gutierrez would perhaps be a contender but he doesn’t appear to have either the motivational power of Nolan or the serene aura of Coloccini.
While much has been made of nationality in recent weeks, perhaps it’s character and personality where the real issue is. Effectively this then becomes the main focal point of our summer recruitment. If Coloccini is on his way, we need more “captains” playing for us each week. Otherwise a bad start to next season will prove extremely difficult to turn round.
Author: Paul McIntosh
Follow Paul on Twitter @mcintoshpaul
On Thursday this week the nation’s press will get an opportunity to meet Alan Pardew for the press conference ahead of the West Ham game. Once the horror show against Liverpool has been discussed, talk will turn to player availability for the coming weekend. The excitement will be palpable as we find out which of our knackered players are getting closer to that long-awaited comeback. In other words, it’s Thursday, it’s five to two, it’s time for Knackerjack. A little reference for the teenagers, there…
As is often the case when teams have a disappointing season, the number of crocks in the squad is one of the first lines of defence. Undeniably it has been a factor, certainly compared to last season when Krul, Simpson, Coloccini, Cabaye, Gutierrez and Ba all managed at least 32 league starts and even Williamson’s return to fitness dovetailed almost perfectly with Steven Taylor’s achilles injury. The fact is, injuries barely played a part last season at all. Competing in the sphere of tiny margins as we are, it made a huge difference. Look back through last season’s league games and see how many you can pick out as being truly impressive, exciting victories. Maybe half a dozen, several of which were when Cisse & Ben Arfa hit top form in March/April. Much of what was achieved last season was based on grafting and grinding out points. Taking a battering at Loftus Road, Ewood Park and Old Trafford but escaping with a result, for example. Keeping 19 clean sheets in the process.
Consistent team selection was vital in turning defeats into draws and draws into wins: that’s not rocket science, just as it’s no great revelation to point out that when injuries do bite as they have this season you soon see the impact on results and, eventually, confidence. The hope back in the summer was that our squad players – largely untested last season – would be a year older, a year wiser and ready to step up if needed. What we’ve since learned is the likes of Ferguson, Tavernier, Sammy Ameobi and Bigirimana simply aren’t up to the job, at least not yet.
While injuries can’t be cited as the sole reason for a season of disappointment it would be churlish not to recognise them as being an issue . What is slightly more difficult to ascertain is how well the injuries themselves are being handled by the club.
Let’s look at some examples. Here’s a string of numbers for you: 1, 3, 7, 3, 4, 1, 1. Those numbers represent runs of consecutive league games Cheick Tiote has managed this season. His most recent unexplained knock caused him to miss the game at West Brom ending his “run” of one game. That run consisted of his lethargic, rusty display against Sunderland a week earlier. We know from experience that Tiote takes a good 2-3 games to get fully “warmed up” after an absence. Perhaps it is nothing more than bad luck. Perhaps he really has had seven separate injuries in eight months. Probably nothing more than mischief-making to suggest his injuries are being mis-managed.
How about Hatem Ben Arfa? His hamstring strain in late November seemed to be a bad one. Little was said about an expected recovery date. Then, out of the blue, less than three weeks later he’s back and scoring at Craven Cottage. Subbed on 70 minutes “to protect him for the coming games” according to Pardew. We didn’t see him again for three months. Back he came, again somewhat out of the blue, and straight into the starting XI on the plastic pitch of the freezing Luzhniki Stadium. Again subbed in the second half, again he disappears for weeks afterwards. Over a month later – he reappears once more for the game at home to Benfica. Looking decidedly out of shape, “Fatem” has now made four consecutive cameos and is apparently “on the verge” of starting a game.
Davide Santon; tweaks his hamstring at the (real) Stadium of Light, appears in the starting XI against Fulham three days later, lasts 17 minutes before his hamstring goes completely and his season is over.
Fabricio Coloccini; Another vague prognosis following bone damage in his back. “In contention” for the Sunderland game. “Pencilled in” for the West Brom game. “Return postponed” until the Liverpool game. It goes without saying he missed that one too. Who knows, maybe he could have helped keep it down to 5-0…
Ryan Taylor; desperately unlucky to sustain a horror injury back in August. Back in training this month, building up fitness, when a relapse effectively rules him out of the whole of NEXT season.
Yohan Cabaye; Started the season slowly (after 20 minutes of pre-season game time), missed the horror run of winter form but is now back in the side playing every week despite looking utterly wrecked in the second half whenever he plays. It’s worth noting that we’ve picked up an average of 1.32 points per game when Cabaye starts. Contrast that with 0.62 per game when he’s absent and you can understand the temptation to pick him every time. However, whether he’s carrying an injury or simply lacking in stamina there’s no denying that he looks shot after an hour or so whenever he’s played lately.
I have to reiterate that this could all be nothing but bad luck. However, what’s consistently frustrating from a fan’s point of view is the lack of information (or indeed sheer misinformation) that comes from the club. Are the medical staff handling the injuries properly? Are these delayed returns because the rehabilitation isn’t as it should be? Is Pardew deliberately withholding information in order to facilitate “surprise” returns like those of Ben Arfa? Does Pardew even know when players are due to come back? Is it club policy not to announce when they expect a player back from injury?
One thing that’s true of all football fans, particularly when things aren’t going well, is that they want honesty and clarity from their club. Maybe I’m not reading the right newspapers but I truly don’t know exactly what has been wrong with Tiote this season. I have no idea what led the club to believe that Coloccini might have been almost ready three weeks ago when he’s now a “probable” for the trip to West Ham. No one really seems sure why Ben Arfa was deemed fit to play that game in Russia (taking a month to recover) when anyone in the world could see it was a risk.
The problem when information is withheld or when information is vague is that it gives the impression you don’t really know what’s going on. At a time when growing numbers are questioning Alan Pardew’s ability to do his job I feel that this is one area where he, and the club as a whole, could claw back some ground with the fans. A bit of clarity and openness around the injuries within the squad would have perhaps increased faith in the job Pardew is doing. It might even have encouraged a bit more sympathy for his plight – something he could really do with just now…
Author: Paul McIntosh
Follow Paul on Twitter @mcintoshpaul
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
Website: http://markbrophy.wordpress.com/ for a back catalogue of Mark’s writing.
Follow Mark on Twitter @mark_brophy
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