The Agenda: Cheick Tiote tackling the trend to lead NUFC revival

Tackling has gone out of fashion in English football but Newcastle United are doing their level best to bring it back

Julian Finney/Getty Images Cheick Tiote of Newcastle United
Cheick Tiote of Newcastle United

Like all fads, football fashions come and – thankfully – go.

It is more than just the dodgy kits that are dictated by trends, so is the whole style of the game.

For now at least, Spanish is de moda (that’s their phrase for en vogue, by the way). It is hardly a great surprise but tika-taka, the method of the World and European champions is admired and mimicked the world over.

Even the England football team, that last bastion of head-in-the-sand tactical cussedness is playing 4-2-3-1 more often than not nowadays. Sam Allardyce’s West Ham United have played with a false No 9 plenty of times this season for Heaven’s sake, although those who have studied Carlton Cole’s career might argue it is nothing new.

But it is more than just the shapes of the teams that have altered. Transport an English football fan straight from Highbury’s Clock End in the 1980s to a bucket seat at the Emirates and they would scarcely believe what they were seeing.

Quite apart from coming to terms with the fact that Tony Adams, Michael Thomas and Perry Groves had been replaced by Johnny Foreigners, and that their nutcracker shorts had been swapped for Stanley Matthews-style ones, the game is very different now.

The ball spends a lot less time on the beautifully-manicured pitches than it ever could on the mud-heaps of old and, helped by rule changes, rough-and-tumble has made way for something a bit more, well, namby-pamby.

Nowhere is it more obvious than the middle of the field.

The archetypal modern English midfielder is a bloke from Wallsend. Michael Carrick’s baggy shorts do not tend to get very muddy when he plays for Manchester United. Some days he could play in a dinner jacket because tackling is not really his game.

He is the defensive midfielder for the English champions.

Back in the 1980s, there was no such thing as defensive midfielders. Every midfielder was expected to fight for every ball he could get near, and the odd one he could not.

Carrick has made less than two tackles a game this season. It is not that he is bad at his job, it is not his job.

No player in the 2013-14 Premier League intercepts the ball more often, at four times a game. Like Bastian Schweinsteiger, Xabi Alonso or Sergio Busquets, Carrick’s job is cutting passes out before anyone has to make a tackle, something that now carries a big risk of a yellow card, then pass the ball – something else he does more often than his domestic peers.

In preferring the cultured Ki Sung-Yeung to the clatter of Lee Cattermole, Sunderland have gone with the flow, but it is a trend Newcastle United have bucked recently to great effect. They still have an elegant passer in Yohan Cabaye, but the balance between steel and silk is more even.

In four of their last five games, the Magpies have out-tackled their opponents. Surprisingly, the win at home to Norwich City was the only exception.

Starting with November’s 1-0 win at Tottenham Hotspur, they have upped their game in the tackling department, increasing their average by six per match.

It is no surprise the ball-winners were busy at White Hart Lane. The second half was like a training match as Newcastle, aided by an inspired Tim Krul, desperately and successfully defended a 1-0 lead. They attempted 29 tackles in 90 minutes.

It is a level of aggression Premier League teams are no longer used to. With players as powerful as Cheick Tiote and Moussa Sissoko, the Magpies can bully opponents and rush them into mistakes.

Players like Tom Cleverley are used to time on the ball to pick passes, but in the first 20 minutes at Old Trafford on Saturday, Tiote and co made it abundantly clear they would not get it. The result?

A rattled home team gave Krul his easiest trip to the famous old ground since the days when he went just to sit on the bench.

At present Newcastle are seventh in the table for tackles attempted, but their average for the last five games (25) is higher than any Premier League team has managed this season. Not that trying to win the ball automatically equals success.

Crystal Palace are top of the table for that, and one from bottom in the standings that actually matter.

But the difference is when Newcastle win the ball, they have players like Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa to give it to.

It is all about balance – Tiote has only been booked three times in club football this season – and right now Newcastle are getting theirs right by adopting a more aggressive approach.

It will be no surprise to see who is leading the way.

Tiote has attempted 4.8 tackles in those five games, as opposed to 3.8 over the season as a whole.

Only twice in that time have any of his team-mates got stuck in more often.

Like his team, Tiote is seventh in the country over the course of the campaign, but his average for the previous five would put him top.

There have been times this year where Tiote’s value has been questionable but now, seemingly inspired by his promotion to vice-captain, he is back at the heart of everything good about Alan Pardew’s Magpies.

For the first time in three New Years, there will be no African Cup of Nations to take him away, and Pardew will be very grateful for that. If the Ivorian can just limit himself to one yellow card in December, there will be no suspension either.

Thanks in no small part to Tiote, Newcastle are winning games. That is the only statistic that actually matters.

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