Picking apart the bones of the 2012/2013 season at Newcastle United is a complicated and messy process. On the one hand, one could choose to sympathize with Alan Pardew, noting the one table the Geordies did manage to lead almost the entire season was the Premier League injury table. One could point to the infamous Europa League fixtures that contributed to a 62 game season in total, surely providing one of the biggest reason for option A. One could also point the finger at the owner, Mike Ashley and a significant lack of backing for the manager in the summer transfer window.
Alternatively, one can flip the coin and challenge Pardew and his coaching staff to take a good look in the mirror. Numerous questionable decisions throughout the season involving team selection, tactical decisions and bizarre substitutions has led to Pardew standing severely exposed under the spotlight of the fans and the media. The image of a smooth talking, unruffled Pardew in last season’s incredible (over?) achievements has been discarded for a man who can’t seem to choose the right words this season.
In a time when every single soundbite emanating from a club is fully available within a few minutes on social media platforms, a coach’s interactions with the media is vitally important in managing relationships with the fans. This was almost summarized in one end of season quote by MD, Derek Llambias, who stated last week the aim for next season is a top 10 finish. The right thing to say, and at the same time, the wrong thing to say. Obviously, it’s not an easy club to manage.
This review isn’t intended to find the magical cause of why Newcastle had such an abysmal season. Possible reasons are numerous (some blindingly obvious) and can easily be found written about elsewhere. This piece is just an opportunity to discuss some considerations that I think may have been overlooked and personally think are quite relevant to this season and next.
Without doubt, Hatem Ben Arfa plays a very important role in Newcastle United’s attack. However, it’s also very clear that his positioning is crucial to his performances. With his heavy reliance on his left foot and his tendency to take risks, it was evident on numerous occasions this season that he can be targeted if played deeper on the right (as in a 4-4-2). Liverpool’s 3rd goal in the 0-6 mauling provided a perfect example of this issue. Hatem demands the game to be played at his pace (which has arguably slowed since his injury and poor conditioning) and here he was instantly pressed as soon as he received the ball in a deep area, losing possession to Coutinho with a lot of our players out of position, from which Liverpool instantly counter attacked and scored.
liability characteristic, which has been shown more times this season than most, means it’s almost imperative that Ben Arfa is played 20 yards higher up the pitch, in an advanced wide right position – a position, which in all fairness, he has usually started for Newcastle this season. The problem comes when he drops deeper to fetch possession – usually due to a frustration to get involved. With Debuchy pushing on past him when he cuts in, it makes it even riskier losing the ball in a deep position. Playing higher up means he would see less of the ball but in more important situations, in more 1v1s, and with less time for opposition to double up on him.
Integral to this is the need for a passer in the middle to set up these 1v1 situations – to which Yohan Cabaye is perfect for. This is not too far from the way most coaches realize that Xavi Alonso is crucial to Real Madrid, as it is his long diagonal passes that allow Cristiano Ronaldo the opportunity to expose vulnerable fullbacks.
Moussa Sissoko’s switch from a holding midfielder at Toulouse to a no. 10 at Newcastle initially seemed a masterstroke by Pardew, with a couple of instant brilliant games against Aston Villa and Chelsea. The rest of the season was a disappointing mixture of inconsistent performances and question marks over his preferred and most suitable position (ending the season on the right wing is not worth discussing). Numerous confusing quotes came out of the English and French media (translation issues mean most can be taken with a pinch of salt) with some claiming he was unhappy being asked to play behind the striker.
Sissoko in L’Equipe: “I am not a number 10. The day before playing the friendly against Germany (early in February), French team coach Didier Deschamps teased me about the number 10 position I have in Newcastle, telling me I should not expect to play just behind Karim Benzema. I don’t consider myself as a playmaker, but at Newcastle, I bring my speed in the gaps.”
Quotes from the French coach seem to indicate Didier Deschamps does not approve of his new position either, but is willing to use it as a chance to see Sissoko’s potential other qualities.
What most fans find so bizarre and frustrating about this situation is that Cheick Tiote, last season’s ’20 million pound’ man, who struggled through injuries the entire season, was in awful form when he did feature. However, Pardew consistently chose to overlook this and persevered in selecting him when fit, despite a well experienced (French international) holding midfielder in Sissoko presumably quite capable of playing that role.
With Sissoko holding, alongside Cabaye, Newcastle could fill the 3rd band with a less physical, more technical Marveaux-Gouffran-Ben Arfa attack. This would be, on paper, a pretty balanced and bold team selection (stepping aside any discussions on width). Not ironically, these 5 were never selected together in the starting XI the entire season, due to injuries or Pardew insisting on the immortal, more defensively inclined, Jonas Gutierrez instead. Again, this raises important question marks on mentality that Pardew needs to face in any end of season reviews. Is Gutierrez, a defensive winger playing as a holding midfielder really an answer?
Looking into the transfer window and one thing is almost certain, the club will need to bring in another centre back. Coloccini is almost certainly on his way out and so goes another influential player off the field. Reports suggest the club are looking locally as well as abroad for potential central defenders, with the focus seemingly on bringing in a backup rather than a player for the starting XI. Yanga-Mbiwa and Taylor have the potential to form a strong partnership with contrasting qualities, however Taylor’s injury record will mean we will need a backup stronger than Mike Williamson or James Perch (who can fill in for cup games).
Pardew has mentioned the need to bring in a goalscoring defender, highlighting our lack of threat off set pieces as a key factor in this season’s decline. He also claimed he is expecting more goals from the fullbacks next season.
Pardew: “The big fall down has been the centre-backs scoring goals from set plays. We need to have more dominance in that area. It’s all well and good saying that the set play problem is down to tactics, delivery, whatever. Ultimately you need six-foot four to go and head it in, or at least make first contact. We’re not the strongest attacking-wise and that is an area that we need to look at.”
The outstanding characteristic we should be looking for in targets is leadership, with most of the squad seemingly brittle mentally (most of the new French players should be looking to improve on this next season). Language is obviously key, not just for communicating to each other on the field but also for influencing referees and improving quick on-field tactical changes from the coach (what are those?). English lessons for all the new French players is imperative, as has been highlighted by the impressive Massadio Haidara.
A striker is a necessity, a backup right back to replace Danny Simpson and a mobile goalscoring midfielder that could play as a 10 would be good starting additions to the squad. Ajax’s Siem De Jong has been mentioned which would be a great signing for a number of reasons, and one which wouldn’t require substantial wages (meaning a larger transfer fee could be offered). He has stressed the need for consistent matches ahead of the World Cup, again something we could offer against rival bids. His signing could also push Sissoko deeper and give depth to our attacking options.
Minor details aside, personally, the most disappointing factor of this season is the fact that Pardew is concluding his 3rd season in charge at Newcastle and we are still yet to see the outline of a long term plan. When a team is winning it is easy to look past this, as was the case in last season’s distant memory. This year, with results vastly different, one naturally starts to look deeper to find assurances that there are positive signs of growth elsewhere. One only has to look at Liverpool’s current situation to see why a club of their size has become so acceptable of a 7th place finish – purely because anyone can see Brendan Rodgers has a clear philosophy of how he wants his side to play and they are forfeiting short term gains for what they believe will be long term success.
Is this happening at Newcastle? After 3 seasons under Pardew’s leadership it’s hard to put a discernible finger on what brand of football we specialize in (besides officially becoming a second ball team). Pardew does not have full control over transfers and even so if he does want a certain style implemented, he would struggle to bring in all the players he feels are best suited to it. Questions of team selection, tactics, set pieces aside, when it comes down to a long term vision and style, under Alan Pardew’s management, what is Newcastle United?
The greatest Newcastle teams have had clear images and identities attached to them – Keegan’s Entertainers, Robson’s team of pace, width and balance. What we need, but aren’t seeing under Pardew, is signs that we are heading towards something similar.