A tempestuous Wear-Tyne derby taught us that Alan Pardew is no closer to unlocking his black-and-white enigma.
Resurgent against Brendan Rodgers’ Reds, Newcastle’s flair men found themselves rendered largely redundant against Gus Poyet’s red- and-whites. Of all the games to rediscover their maddening inconsistency, this was the one that will do most to hurt Pardew.
For he is not presiding over a squad that is a carbon copy of the damned 2008 group, which was the last to taste defeat on Wearside courtesy of Kieran Richardson’s wicked free-kick.
They were a collection of players who had a surfeit of fight and motivation, but the 2013 vintage have proved on occasions this season that they are capable of competing with the very best.
Pardew himself has said that the team reminds him of the XI that marched into the top five.
So why are they liable to dip below their own high standards? Providing a decent answer to that poser will hold the key to the direction of Pardew’s management.
Yesterday, United paid for Hatem Ben Arfa’s restlessness, Moussa Sissoko’s anonymity and the ramshackle nature of their makeshift back four. But it said it all that Newcastle had shifted systems within half-an-hour of the start of the Stadium of Light showdown as Pardew looked for an answer to Gus Poyet’s high-tempo 4-4-2 set-up.
To Pardew’s credit, Newcastle slowly worked up a head of steam and gained a strangehold on possession as the half wore on. They nicked a deserved leveller when Mathieu Debuchy ghosted past Andrew Dossena and the momentum seemed to be back with them.
But they never truly convinced as the game entered its critical stage and Sunderland’s late winner – through Fabio Borini – was not the injustice that Pardew felt it was. It felt more like a reckoning for a group of players who had lost a grasp on a match they had enough momentum, confidence and ability to win.
Where do they go from here? Pardew now has the unwanted title of twice loser in the derby, a moniker that he knows will hurt him. But to the majority of Newcastle supporters this defeat and the fall-out from it merely bring home pressing concerns about the direction their club is going in.
On the field, they can yo-yo between sublime and ridiculous with breakneck speed, but fundamental issues remain. Quite what Sissoko is meant to do in this midfield is unclear. Pardew’s Rolls-Royce midfielder was meant to be the answer to the club’s engine room problems but he is rapidly becoming part of the problem. He has pace, power and poise – we have seen that in bursts – but there has been no consistency since he arrived.
Papiss Cisse looks a shadow of the player he was when he arrived, while no effective role has been found for Ben Arfa either. Playing on either flank he feels lost.
How Newcastle could have done with some of the balance added by Vurnon Anita, although as one of the quieter members of the squad he is always battling to keep his place among more influential senior players in the group.
Off the field, United have struck off three local newspapers for disagreeing with our coverage of a march against Mike Ashley. Their attempt to silence questions to Pardew from myself and Lee Ryder, another reporter from the ncjMedia stable, made national news and warranted further unwanted headlines.
The ban was imposed on Wednesday but was not revealed until a public press conference where Newcastle refused to answer our questions. We had not publicly revealed it so as to protect the team’s build-up to the derby game.
The club face a big enough task trying to reassert themselves among the Premier League’s big beasts without creating their own problems, but it is something they do time and time again on Mike Ashley’s watch. It appears that they never learn.