On the 18th of August, Newcastle began their latest Premier League campaign excellently with a 2-1 win over what is hoped will be a rival for a European place come the end of the campaign. However, the win was by no means a smooth one, a combination of lack of fitness and strategy meaning the away side controlled uncomfortable portions of the game, particularly in the first half.
On the day, fitness undoubtedly played a part – but the fresher, sharper looking Tottenham side had come to press and control midfield, crucially in a 433 layout, and could do without feeling much retaliation from the home side who had adopted the traditionally English 442. Newcastle themselves had adopted a less familiar 433 to great effect in the latter stages of the season previous, but in reverted to the older system seemingly for one overriding reason – to accommodate both Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse as central strikers.
Ba began the 2011/12 season in earnest slightly later than most, but once he had rattled in a hat-trick against a powerless Blackburn side his goal scoring continued at superb pace. Playing as the focal point of the attack, usually in a 442, Ba churned out 15 goals in the four months between his first and leaving to represent Senegal in the African Cup of Nations in January. His exploits were very impressive, but had been largely facilitated by the support given to him when partnered by Leon Best, and on occasion, Shola – whichever partner it happened to be concentrating on disrupting the defence and dropping deep to link midfield and attack. Best had scored three in the six prior to Ba’s return to full fitness and regardless of expectation his barren spell appeared very coincidental.
Ba returned from the ACoN with international team-mate Papiss Cisse in tow, and no sooner had he arrived than Leon Best was injured and Cisse was thrust into the team to replace him – making a scoring debut alongside Ba against Aston Villa. The 442 which had seen Newcastle maintain a high league position past Christmas was maintained; however in the following five fixtures had sequence of unconvincing performances as the front two struggles for service and to understand their new roles. The benefit of hindsight allows us to say that this was not simply just a case of Cisse struggling with life in a new, foreign land. The eventual teasing of Hatem Ben Arfa into the fold then lead Pardew to resurrect the 433 which had been briefly tested when the Senegalese pair were absent, resulting in instant success in a dynamic, attacking 3-1 win at West Bromwich Albion, followed by a comprehensive outplaying of Liverpool the week after.
However, Ba’s role was to sacrifice his own opportunities in front of goal for the sake of the 433, and soon after attempts were made to ‘make good’ the 442 for the appeasement of some players. Round pegs, slotted loosely into square holes and although all looked good on paper, the attacking fluidity, and crucially the midfield dominance of the 443 was lost. The effects were very apparent in the final game away to Everton, being comfortably beaten by a dominant toffees side.
Returning to this season, expectations were that a compromise would be found, or the 433 returned to – yet starting line-ups have yet to suggest anything other than persistence with the 442. All three Premier League games NUFC have started this way to great frustration – lacking service from the wings (critical to a 442) and struggling to compete in midfield, only to revert to the 433 in reaction. Perhaps it is only coincidence, but of the three games so far, NUFC have lost the first half of two, drawing one, whilst winning two and drawing one of the second periods…
Furthermore, when taking into account the larger stock of player availability in midfield (not to mention the cover an extra man gives to our wounded defence) and the options for the wide areas of the front three (Marveaux, Obertan, Sammy) the 433 arguably gives the squad a greater balance of selection. Certainly those factors make the decision to plough on with the 442 difficult to justify – if it is indeed largely for the appeasement of one man.
Perhaps a happier scenario, at least in terms of striker selection, would see a rotation of Ba and Cisse as central striker in the 433 – with a torrent of games on the horizon – with the benefit of maintaining fitness throughout and lowering to risk of injury through sustained overplaying? Or maybe the scenario is far more drastic – sacrificing a player from selection for the greater good of the team. Although the latter is and should be avoided, we need only look at the will of more successful teams in doing so to benefit the greater goal.
For now, I personally can only hope a return to the 433 is imminent. Very soon NUFC will be embarking on a stern run of fixtures which will test the squad and staff almost too braking point – and in navigating this; they need only look at their professional attitude and sensible strategy of last season.
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