The mystery of Cheick Tiote’s unravelling form can finally be solved.
Having endured nearly a year of curiously indifferent performances from one of their key men, it was presumed that Newcastle’s Ivorian enforcer had lost the midfield mojo that turned him into one of the Premier League’s most coveted players.
Now finally posting something close to the sort of performances that pegged him at the £15million mark, Tiote is able to reveal the real reason for the slackening of his form - paranoia.
To set the scene: Tiote revelled in the ‘hard man’ image that was built up around him after a remarkable debut season. His outstanding equaliser in the 4-4 draw with Arsenal was the headline contribution of a campaign in which he was able to shape matches through sheer force of personality.
But his ferocity and will-to-win was being noticed by referees. In his first two seasons, he topped the Premier League caution table in both years. Indeed in his debut year, he averaged 0.54 yellow cards in every game, a record that unsurprisingly led to some Champions League suitors baulking at Newcastle’s eight-figure asking price for him.
Tiote was told to change and belatedly, it happened. Seven yellow cards in 24 games (plus a single red) saw him sink down the disciplinary charts into 21st position. But it also coincided with a run of form that saw many calling for him to relinquish a position in the heart of midfield that looked his for years to come.
It was theorised that Tiote couldn’t remove the aggression from his game without tampering with what made him great but the midfielder now reveals that his problems last year were mostly psychological.
And it all started with a red card at Sunderland that damaged both his confidence and authority.
He said: “The red card at Sunderland really affected me a lot. More than I realised at the time. When you get a red card, it is very difficult to come back in and play with the same intensity. It really hits your confidence. And of course injuries did not help either.
“This year, I have had no red cards and that has helped. A red card affects the way you approach games. You ask yourself what you are doing wrong. You lose confidence because you think the referee is always going to be looking at you. You become paranoid and fear to make tackles. This year, I have improved and put it right.”
On the pitch, the spring is now back in Tiote’s step – and that has a lot to do with a strip of material stretched over his right bicep.
United’s captaincy has been used strategically by Alan Pardew on this occasion, handed to Tiote to help him become more of a diplomatic presence on the pitch. Having judged him too incendiary to provide a proper rival to Fabricio Coloccini in the leadership stakes back in 2011, Pardew has now used the honour to help Tiote to mature as a player.
It has proved a successful move.
Tiote explains: “It helps being captain because that means I see the referee before the game. I joke and say please do not book me but seriously, we have a conversation and they tell me that I have to show the rest of the players a good example.
“As captain you are not allowed to do certain things on the pitch. I tell him not to book me but I still go out there and give 100% but make sure I stay on the pitch and finish the game. I am more mature now. I think I have learnt a lot from that very bad experience at Sunderland. I certainly do not want to go through it ever again. I got my first booking of the season against Manchester City and was disappointed because I did not think it was a bad challenge.
“But you will always pick up a few yellow cards over a season.”
Tiote is similarly happy with his form after making the candid admission that he was well below his best last season. For some players the additional burden of the armband diminishes or cows them. For the midfielder, it seems to have been a spark to rediscover the sort of authority and influence that he illustrated in those early days.
“I think I look good,” he says. “I am doing my job. I enjoy the captaincy and am playing well. I need to carry on playing like this, driving the team forward, trying to help us win games.
“I really enjoy being captain. It is a big responsibility. I certainly did not expect to be captain but was delighted and need to show an example to everyone. I think he chose me as captain because he wants me to be more responsible on the pitch. When you are the leader, you need to show an example to everyone. I like to think I have done that.
“I think I am playing my best football for a long time. Last season, I did not play well at all. But this season, I feel really good and think that is shown in my performances.”
This afternoon brings Tiote and Newcastle into a collision with a Chelsea team that are starting to move through the gears in ominous fashion.
United are coming off the back of two defeats but their midweek display against Manchester City was encouraging enough for Pardew and his players to believe that they are not in the midst of a slump. Even in an unsatisfactory display against Sunderland, there was a level of performance that was far from catastrophic.
Now, though, they need to summon something special to get back on track.
He said: “I believe we are performing well despite the results. We are playing as a team, staying compact and creating chances. We have another opportunity on Saturday and must take it. We have proved we can compete with the big teams.
“It is going to be massive for us on Saturday because we have lost our last two games.
“Now we are at home again and have to do everything we can to get a positive result. No side wants to lose three in a row. At the moment, Chelsea are in good form.
“They seem to be winning every game they play. We are ready for it and know it will be a very tough game. But we are at home and we have the quality. We will do anything to get a result.
“We have proved we can beat them as we did at our place earlier this year. It is certainly not mission impossible especially with the quality we have in our squad. But we must do the right things, stay together and of course take our chances.
“The first goal will be huge and if we can score that, then we have a good chance.”