May 29, 2012

2011/12 Season Review part 1: Team and Management


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

Enrique in goal for LiverpoolRD 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.

Ryan Taylor vs SunderlandSunderland 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

Hatem Ben ArfaRD: 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.

In summary

Europa LeagueRD 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…

In the mean time, if you want our instant news and (kneejerk) reaction to anything Newcastle United or football related then follow us on Twitter: or on Facebook:

May 12, 2012

Alan Pardew – Manager of the Season

On the 11th of May, Newcastle manager Alan Pardew was named Barclays Premier League Manager of the Season for 2011/12.

With a minimum 5th place finish in the table secured, the smooth talking man from Wimbeldon has taken a squad of mixed agitation and fresh faces from some ‘experts’ “relegation candidates” to within inches of the 3rd best team in the League.  His feats have been exceptional, particularly considering the timescales involved, and receiving this high accolade has been widely received as one which is fully deserved.

So what have been the keys to this success?  Naturally, there are a multitude of smaller factors which will have combined to assist the overall success – but a few reoccurring themes in particular have emerged as the season has gone on…

Squad management
By far Alan Pardew’s most documented effect has been that of his management of the Newcastle squad.  Player power had well bypassed its boundaries under the leadership of the influential Kevin Nolan, and with the likes of Joey Barton vocally stating displeasure (granted, at the senior management) a potentially dangerous undercurrent of revolt and divide in the dressing was building.

The appointment of the calm and understated Fabricio Coloccini as captain turned out to be a masterstroke – quickly imposing his model professional influence on the squad.  All round, negative influences were slowly eroded and troublesome players were isolated and managed individually – testament that the eventual transfers of Barton and Enrique were greeted with little to no squad derision, far from the twitter outbursts that greeted both the Carroll and Nolan departures.

Great steps were made by the scouting teams and advisors in choosing players with the right attitude to bring in, but the little details in making those players settle quickly and feel comfortable have arguably been just as important in maintaining morale.  At the training ground there has been Africa day, Argentina day, France day – something so small, to make such a big difference to a young man far from home.

“It’s curried goat and it was fantastic, I loved it! It’s another example of how the club has made me feel so welcome and I appreciated it very much. Everyone has helped me, especially the manager. It’s not difficult to be happy here. I felt at home straightaway”. Papiss Cisse: Guardian.

Arguably Pardew’s finest piece of management this season is the personal management of the potentially volatile Hatem Ben Arfa.  The clamour for his inclusion from fans and the player himself was overwhelming and where other managers would have buckled, Pardew stayed defiant – playing his patient and psychological game to eventually turn Ben Arfa into a far more rounded, harder working team player – and crucially – submissive to the managers wishes.

“I’ve matured. I’m more effective for the team now. I defend more and I’ve even got a taste for defending now. “I’ll play wherever the coach asks me to play.”  Hatem Ben Arfa: Le Parisien

A far cry from the Ben Arfa that publically fell out with his superiors at Lyon and Marseille.

No player has been written off if they have showed a desire and steps have been taken to maximise those with limited ability – the reinvention of the now fearless blocker James Perch in particular has been a superb piece of management, creating a very handy player on finite resources.

Public relations
From day one, Pardew has worked his time in the lime-light superbly, being open and honest in his statements, whilst maintaining positivity throughout.  A brand of refreshing reality – but never too honest – his words always attempt to keep feet on the ground but eyes at the stars. His performances in radio broadcast fan Q&A sessions in particular have been exemplary, giving the general public a 1st person taste of situations behind the scenes, but stopping short of revealing sensitive information.  It can’t be underestimated how crucial this has been with buying valuable time with supporters restless at the direction of the club upon his appointment – facilitating player and tactical changes with ‘wait and see’ grumbles rather than resentment.

The days of public falling outs with players or boardroom, and ‘insomnia’ style slips of the tongue are just a distant memory, as the circus has long since moved out of town…

Changing faces…
Of course, many a man can talk a good game but the ultimate judgement comes on the field and in that we have seen arguably his most potent asset – an ability to change tactics and strategy to suit resources and opposition.  In simplicity – NUFC have played, and won, whilst using 442, 433 and 451 formations – from backs against the wall ‘score and defend’, to fast paced counter-attacking, to possession domination.

Newcastle have shown a range of faces – a trait which has made it difficult for the opposition to second guess our play and rarely being out-thought. The fact that Newcastle have only lost two league games in a row once so far this season is testament enough to our ability to change to grind out a result if needed.

Beyond anything, Pardew has taken every possible effort for Newcastle to play to their strengths – from understanding the lack of firepower early in the season, to the introduction of Hatem Ben Arfa and an advanced Yohan Cabaye to compliment the devastating Papiss Cisse.  The use of the Raylor / Gutierrez partnership early season in particular being crucial in ensuring our season long lack of a left-footed left back never caused any real, serious problems.

The future
Unfortunately for Alan Pardew, a high standard has now been set.  Naturally, a manager of the season award is not expected yearly, but in him and his staff creating the exciting, driven and professional Newcastle United team they have the ambition is expanding at a rapid rate. There will undoubtedly be rougher times to navigate, but the man himself has proved on a number of occasions his ability to steer calmly through choppy waters.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the stage is now set to show how far he can personally take us. But even if this were to be his ceiling (and here’s thoroughly believing it isn’t) his part in stabilising, motivating and reinventing Newcastle United – in little over a year and a half – has been delightfully received.  Congratulations Alan, and here’s to the future!

Apr 8, 2012

Papiss Demba Cisse: the best goalscoring start in the history of NUFC?

Papiss Cisse awayPapiss Cisse’s impressive 9 goals in his first 8 Premier League games has brought comparisons with Newcastle strikers of old, most notably Andy Cole, but how does his goal return compare to that of other top Newcastle goalscorers from their first 8 league games for the club?

Upon joining Newcastle from Freiburg in the January transfer window, for a fee believed to be in the region of 8-10 million pounds, Papiss Cisse’s goalscoring impact has been instant.  It is an oft-trotted out line by managers and pundits that ‘players need time to adapt to their new club’s style of play’, often when defending the latest 35 or 50 million pound misfiring striker, but thankfully this wasn’t the case with Cisse.

Having scored 87 goals in 203 games prior to joining Newcastle, Papiss Cisse has continued his fine goalscoring record and wasted little time in demonstrating what it was that convinced the club he was worth pursuing and worth investing in.

In fact, the Senegalese International took only 57 minutes to open his Premier League account as he appeared off the substitutes’ bench to score a stunning match-winner in Newcastle’s 2-1 victory over Aston Villa in February.  7 games later, Cisse has maintained his remarkable goals-per-minutes strike rate which currently stands at a goal every 66 minutes.

Following Newcastle’s 2-0 victory at Swansea on Good Friday, in which Cisse scored his 8th and 9th goals for Newcastle, SKY displayed a table which showed Cisse’s goal return in comparison with other strikers from their first 8 Premier League games:

Micky Quinn810Coventry City1992-93
Papiss Cisse89Newcastle United2011-12
Sergio Aguero89Manchester City2011-12
Mark Viduka89Leeds United2000-01
Alan Shearer88Blackburn Rovers1992-93
Kevin Phillips88Sunderland1999-00
Franceso Baiano88Derby County1997-98

As can be seen from the table, Cisse’s 9 goals from his first 8 Premier League games is on a par with the goalscoring starts made by Mark Viduka and Sergio Aguero, and is only bettered by former Newcastle man Micky Quinn, who bounced off the ground to score 10 in his first 8 for Coventry City.

Although SKY would have us believe otherwise, football didn’t begin in 1992 and, especially given the references to Andy Cole, I was intrigued to find out how Cisse’s start compared to that of other top Newcastle marksmen from their first 8 league games for the club.

After trawling through ‘Newcastle United: The Ultimate Record’, these are the findings: alongside Cisse, there are 8 other players who have averaged at least a goal a game in their first 8 starts:

Hughie Gallacher8131925-26
Micky Quinn8101989-90
Papiss Cisse892011-12
Les Ferdinand881995-96
Richard Smellie881896-97
Ronald Williams881933-34
Henry Clifton881938-39
Len Shackleton881946-47
Ivor Allchurch881958-59

As can be seen from the table above, after 8 league games of his Newcastle career, Cisse’s goal return is only bettered by Hughie Gallacher and Cisse’s arch-nemesis Micky Quinn.

Other notable Newcastle strikers worth mentioning, but who didn’t quite get off to as quick a start as Cisse, are:

Andy Cole871992-93
Michael Owen872005-06
Kevin Keegan871982-83
Alan Shearer851996-97
Demba Ba852011-12
Malcolm MacDonald841971-72
Peter Beardsley841984-85
Len White801952-54

Newcastle’s second highest scorer of all time – Jackie Milburn – joined the club in 1943 during the second World War. Up until the 1946-47 season, before the second division fixture list returned to normality, Newcastle and Milburn played in the Wartime League. As such, he has not been included in the findings.

Like Andy Cole, Cisse looks to have a natural finisher’s instinct in front of goal and it’s not surprising that the comparisons are being made; however, whereas Cole played the majority of his football in and around the opposition’s penalty area, Cisse looks to have a better all-round game.

Already in his short Newcastle career, Cisse has shown that he possesses an excellent first touch, intelligent link-up play and good movement; as well as an ability to lead the line, hold the ball up and carry out his defensive duties with minimal fuss.

He scores with his left (Aston Villa), with his right (Swansea) and with his head (Liverpool), as well as scoring instinctive goals (Norwich) and sublime chipped efforts (Swansea). Given the chance, he will, more often than not, take it.

Of course, unlike the team colours, the findings above aren’t necessarily black and white. There are a whole range of variables which stats alone can’t account for: form, injuries, chances presented, team-mate quality, opponents faced, etc. Nor do stats take into account that players will have joined the club at different stages in their career – some rose through the ranks, whereas others joined as already proven scorers – or that they may have converted to a striker from another position.

Papiss Cisse homeThere is also the possibility that Cisse could go the remaining 6 games of the season without scoring, which would see him ranked lower in a table showing the goals-per-game ratio of Newcastle strikers after 14 games. However, stripping it down to the hard statistics show how well Cisse has taken to his new role as Newcastle’s number 9.  At this stage, after his first 8 league games, he is the 3rd most prolific goalscorer in Newcastle’s history.

Mar 28, 2012

The Complicated Road to Europe

Eight league games to go and after a scintillating attacking win away to West Brom, talk has began to intensify about a potential European tour next season. 

But, no sooner had talk began than a complex situation started to unfold with permutation after permutation emerging.  In a bout of insanity, we’ve decided to unravel the situation as it stands at present and gauge how the massively unexpected European qualification could actually become a reality.

Firstly, let’s clarify a few points before we start.

  • The FA cup runner up only receives the Europa League place if the cup winner qualifies for the Champions League
  • If the only remaining English team in this season’s Champions League, Chelsea, win that competition, they will take a place in next season’s CL, regardless of their league position.
  • Liverpool have qualified for next year’s Europa League, regardless of what happens, therefore only 2 Europa league places remain.
  • Any English team to win a cup will play European football next season – regardless of league position.

A few permutations…
There are, a frankly ridiculous list of permutations possible with the league and cup competitions remaining so fluid, therefore here’s a non-exhaustive list from the probable, to the mere possible, which all work on the basis that Chelsea do not win the Champions League.

  • Scenario 1:  Everton wins the FA cup and all teams remain in their current position (as of the w/c 26th March).  Everton qualify for the EL (Europa League) as does 5th place in the league.
  • Scenario 2:  Liverpool reaches the FA cup final and all teams remain in their current position (as of the w/c 26th March) – both teams contesting the final have already a route into Europe by way of League or cup.  6th place opens up for Europa League qualification.  Should Liverpool finish in 6th place, the EL place then moves to 7th.
  • Scenario 3:  Everton reaches the FA cup final but lose to a team who gain CL qualification by league position.  Everton qualify for the EL via way of being FA cup runner-up.  The Mersyside duo remain in their current league positions, therefore the EL place stays at 5th place in the league.
  • Scenario 4:  Liverpool wins the FA cup. Having already qualified for the EL by way of their Carling Cup win their ‘second’ qualification then passes to the league, to 6th place.
  • Scenario 5:  Everton wins the FA cup, but a late (and unlikely) surge from both them and Liverpool combined with a collapse of the teams above them means they take up both 5th and 6th places.  With the Merseyside clubs having both already qualified for the EL via their cup wins, the league spot moves to 7th place.  If only one of those clubs makes a late surge to 5th place, then 6th place becomes an EL qualifying place.

Complicating things further…
Confused?  It only gets worse.  A far from impossible Chelsea Champions League win throws everything up into the air – with the FA having confirmed that if they do indeed win the CL then they will take the coveted 4th qualifying place – regardless of where they finish in the league.  If Chelsea win the CL and also finish 4th then nothing changes.  But Chelsea winning the CL, winning the FA cup but finishing 6th (again, entirely possible) then we arrive at a unique situation.

For example, take the above hypothetical event – 6th place Chelsea beat an 8th place Everton in the FA cup final then win the Champions League final 2 weeks later.  Everton would qualify for the EL by way of being FA Cup runner-up and Chelsea would take a CL place – despite both being off the pace in the league.  The presumption from there is the Europa League place will then be moved to 4th place and 5th place would not be a qualifying position.

An equally complex scenario would manifest itself should Tottenham win the FA cup and finish 4th, then Chelsea win the CL after finishing 5th.  This combination would see Spurs enter the EL, Chelsea enter the CL and the 6th place team qualify for the EL by way of League position.  If Liverpool were to finish 6th then the spot would move further down to 7th.

As you can see, things are very far away from being clear, and the permutations will only begin to drop once it becomes clearer who will be contesting both the CL and FA cup finals, respectively.  A 14 day period of time separates first the FA cup final, then the end of the Premier League season, then the Champions League final – in which technically a team could qualify for one European competition only to find themselves in another.

As far as Newcastle is concerned, we can only look to win as many games as possible from our remaining eight – particularly the home games against Bolton and Stoke; and the trip to Wigan. It would be a crying shame that such a strong season could end up being rewarded with little more than a few plaudits and extra positional reward money, but the stark reality is with the cup competitions holding dominance over the destination of the European qualification places, things are as much in our hands as they are out of them.

Here’s hoping…

Jan 19, 2012

Introducing Papiss Demba Cisse

Around 9:30pm on the 17th of January 2012, Newcastle United officially confirmed the signing of Papiss Demba Cisse from Bundesliga side Freiberg – the striker moving for a fee reputed to be between £7.5m and £10m and signing the now infamous five and a half year contract. Notably, he will wear the iconic no. 9 shirt.

Despite having made a move for the player in the dying throws of the August window, the move on this occasion caught almost all by surprise – much in the way the Sylvain Marveaux transfer did, with barely six hours separating first notification through the media to the signing being officially confirmed. To paraphase Winston Churchill, once again NUFC’s ‘precious’ transfer ‘truth’ has been ‘attended by a bodyguard of lies’…

Upon signing, Alan Pardew told the official website “Ever since Andy Carroll left, Papiss was my first choice in the specific role he has at the end of the play…  He is a finisher with an already-established CV in the Bundesliga, where we have monitored him for the best part of two years.”

Club career in stats

SeasonClubGames Played (all comps)Goals
2011/12 (so far)SC Freiburg179
2010/11SC Freiburg3222
2009/10SC Freiburg166
2009/10FC Metz168
2008/09FC Metz3715
2007/08Chateauroux (loan)154
2007/08FC Metz90
2006/07FC Metz3212
2005/06Cherbourg (loan)2811
2005/06FC Metz10

*from his transfer to Metz onwards

So what do we get?

“If ever there was a natural candidate for a #9 position in the PL, it’s Cisse.” Raphael Honigstein

With Andy Carroll’s hastily vacated boots having long since been filled by the sometimes unplayable Demba Ba, NUFC have not struggled for goals, but the burden on Ba has been obvious – being accountable for 56% of Newcastle’s goals so far this season.  The addition of Cisse promises to give NUFC both an alternative goal scoring option and the prospect of upping their goal tally.  Indeed, the latter is an addition that could prove invaluable – NUFC’s 30 goals so far this season is a healthy return but it has been submissive to the defensive contributions in keeping NUFC in the unexpected lofty position they find themselves at the time of writing

“The fast, muscular forward has not only perfectly complemented Freiburg’s style with his exceptional work ethic, but he’s also proved to be an expert finisher” Raphael Honigstein  – ‘ Cissé fuels SC Freiburg’s success’

Taking a slight deviation from the current, physically focussed stock of strikers, Papiss should provide more dynamism to the NUFC forward line – his quick turn of pace and intelligent movement in the channels in attack something we lack up front, whilst still maintaining more than enough presence through his 6ft frame.  His relationship and previous international game time along-side Demba Ba should make his transition into life and playing in Newcastle a little easier, along with the sheer number of French speaking players at the club now. However, despite the similarities between the Premier League and Bundesliga, a period of adaption is still expected.

A word of warning though…

“A weakness? Can be petulant. Picks up needless bookings” – Martyn Fisher @bundesliga_wrap

Nine yellows in 34 games last season would tend to support this claim – one to keep an eye on perhaps…

Stats Comparison (this season)

NameApp.GoalsAssistsShots PGAerials WonS/Drib PGOffside PG
Papiss Cisse17923.625/701.52.6
Demba Ba17 (2)1513.228/760.60.9
Leon Best13 (2)421.544/870.71.3
Modibo Maiga10 (2)412.145/960.90.4

Final thoughts

The transfer of Cisse is as clear cut as any NUFC transfer over the last few years.  Whilst the incoming Ba, Santon, Marveaux et al had the undoubted potential to excite the masses on arrival, each individual excitement was tempered by its own respective, and crucial ‘as long as…’  Cisse has signed in good health, good spirits, good form and with no historical injury issues of major note – the question seems to be simply on how he takes, or how long it takes for him to adapt to our style of play and life in England.

Indeed, in a wider context Cisse’s signing lends itself perfectly to a progressive transfer strategy (at least in terms of incomings) we are still coming to understand.  Much like Yohan Cabaye and Cheick Tiote before him, Papiss has undoubted ability and is just about to hit the prime years of his football career as he takes to the St James’ Park stage – and all this for a very reasonable fee…

NUFC is slowly turning into a superb environment and stage for those wanting to prove themselves in the Premier League – long may it continue.

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