3 games in, 4 points gained, 5 things we’ve learnt
Newcastle’s start to the Premier league campaign could not have produced more mixed results.
Whilst a win, a draw and a loss have by no means provided a worrying start to the season, I personally can’t help feeling a bit underwhelmed. The fortunate 3 points gained against Spurs, the loss at Chelsea and the point rescued from Villa at home last Sunday have already given us moments of joy, frustration and relief; such is the life of a Newcastle United fan. With the international break upon us it’s an appropriate time to reflect on what we’ve seen of our season so far.
What we’ve learnt:
1. Ben Arfa
Hatem Ben Arfa has been a different class. We always knew the lad was good but it seems like he’s really going to step it up a level this season. He’s shown us moments of magic before of course, the unstoppable individual runs leading to goals against Bolton and Blackburn spring to mind straight away, but now he looks like he can make something happen in every game we play. So much of what we do and so much of our attacking play comes from his mazy runs in the opposition half. What’s great to see is how confident he is. It was Ben Arfa who won the penalty against Spurs and it was his devastating strike that denied Villa three points too. He can single-handedly win games and I can see a lot of people realising this season just how good Hatem actually is.
2. 4-4-2 a restraint?
We conceded to a Cieran Clarke header from some very poor marking from our centre halves but it was our attack that looked more disjointed than the backline. It seems we’ve reverted to 4-4-2 playing Ba and Cisse up top together instead of using Cisse as the focal point in a 4-3-3. Ok, Ba has a goal to his name and he is a nuisance to defenders on the edge of the box but there doesn’t seem to be any signs of him and Cisse striking up a partnership. 4-3-3 was incredibly effective last season; we were brilliant in our last ten games of the season (despite the 4-0 Wigan defeat) so why have we changed how we’re setting up? Ba has complained about playing on the left, whether Pardew had to make reassurances to keep him during a transfer window filled with speculation we just don’t know. What I do know is that Cisse has looked like an empty vessel and Yohan Cabaye thrives on playing in at attacking midfield role in a 3 man central midfield, it was how he played when he won the double with Lille. It seems that we aren’t as dominating a side when playing 4-4-2, with some of our players looking like shadows of their former selves. The positives outweigh the negatives, we have proven how fluid we can be in a 4-3-3 and I for one want to see us lose the rigidness of late, even if that means an unhappy Demba Ba.
3. Awful set pieces
What I’ve really noticed is how woeful our set pieces are. Every time we line up a corner we have this elaborate plan going on where Ba will ‘hide’ behind Coloccini and then either Taylor/Williamson or Cisse will join on. When the ball is delivered the three of them split, one stays central with the man, one goes back post (Willo/Taylor) and Ba makes a darting run to the front post. Well that’s all well and good IF the ball can come in to the box! I’ve lost count how many times we have failed to beat the first man from a corner. Cabaye seems to be the main culprit but even Marveaux was equally as bad in his corner-taking against Atromitos in the Europa qualifier at home. We have a lot of potential from our set plays and it seems to be disappointing the team too, it hasn’t gone unrecognised. After the game Ba was quoted saying we don’t score enough from them and Pardew has echoed this frustration too. It must be as infuriating to be involved in as it is to watch it happen.
4. Heads turned?
How much should we read into Pardew’s comments about players’ heads being turned? We know who our core, key players are at the club and we know which ones are sought after. In what I’ve seen so far of Cabaye and Cisse I’d have to say they’ve been really unimpressive. One reason for this could be both players are not yet fully fit but we don’t know what has gone on behind the scenes. Arsenal reportedly had a bid rejected for Cabaye, although Newcastle were quick to dismiss this. Players have aspirations to play at the top, to be Champions League players and agents will always look to better their clients’ status. It’s an achievement that we have managed to keep our best players at the club but unless we keep progressing, heads will still be turning.
5. Strains of a small squad
The size of our squad is worrying, we want to compete with the top teams but we don’t have the resources to cope with injuries and absences like the big clubs do. We’re in three domestic competitions and with Europe this year too, that’s a lot of strain on the players. It’s reassuring that Ivory Coast beat Senegal in the African Cup of Nations qualifying play off tie first leg, if they can build on their 4-2 victory it would mean Cisse and Ba stay in January and only Tiote departs. However if Senegal can overcome the deficit, it would be scary to think of losing our two hit men as we don’t have adequate cover upfront at all. Defensively we have seen injuries to the dependable Ryan Taylor, the versatile James Perch and the ever present Danny Simpson, meaning Vernon Anita has had to fill in at right back. Anita has been brought in to primarily play in central midfield so it’s not an ideal situation by any means, I can’t help but feel bemused why we didn’t go that extra yard and snap up Debuchy! The bottom line is the squad wasn’t bolstered enough in the transfer window. The recent news of Tim Krul picking up a knock to his elbow on international duty and Coloccini flying back to Tyneside to be assessed on a muscular injury creates further concern; we don’t have enough quality at the back to be comfortable when even one of our first teamers are injured.
If Newcastle are to start climbing the table we foremost need to get some basics right. Finding a comfortable formation that plays to our attacking strengths and significantly improving our set pieces could win us games in their own right. Key players need to avoid injury but find their form too, I’d like to see the likes of Cisse and Cabaye improving their work rate to the level of Ben Arfa’s. With consistency comes momentum, eventually it will come because we witnessed it last season. We have a very talented squad here at Newcastle and the players are capable of big things.
Carrying Coals is a new blog designed to provoke response and opinions from readers, comments are welcome.