AFTER the part both played in getting Newcastle United back into Europe for the first time in five years it seems almost sacrilegious to suggest it, but manager Alan Pardew should seriously consider selling one of his Senegalese strikers.
It is not a criticism of either. Both Demba Ba and Papiss Cissé have already repaid Mike Ashley’s investment. But they have given Pardew a tactical conundrum which does not seem to have an answer.
Ever since Cissé spectacularly burst onto the scene in February, Pardew has been trying to find a formation which gets the best out of his three brightest attacking talents: Ba, Cissé and Hatem Ben Arfa. The latter’s future is non-negotiable. Heaven knows where Newcastle would be if he had not rolled his sleeves up in a way he was not thought capable of. For as long as he keeps doing that, he is essential to United.
The problem is getting the best out of him. Pardew once saw Ben Arfa only as a Number ten – the luxury position behind the strikers which allows freedom to roam in search of the ball, without having to worry too much about defensive responsibilities.
It is a role Ben Arfa might return to, as Pardew admitted at the weekend. But once Yohan Cabaye is fit again – hopefully in February – the danger is the two Frenchmen cramp one another’s style by looking to arrive in the same space from different directions.
In January 2012, an exciting alternative emerged from nowhere.
Hard though it is to imagine, Ben Arfa started the year unable to hold down a regular place in Newcastle’s side.
In a desperate attempt to chase an FA Cup tie, he switched to the right wing and excelled, a magnificent goal capping a brilliant performance. Since then he has shown the right of a front three to be his most effective position for Newcastle. Too often this season he has been asked to play deeper, and therefore defend more.
Cissé and Ba’s best roles are already well known – they are centre-forwards. The problem is, Cissé operates best as a lone wolf.
When he joined from Freiburg 11 months ago, the lazy assumption was that as compatriots, Ba and Cissé would be best buddies and perfect strike partners. The evidence of their international careers is somewhat different. They have rarely played for Senegal as a front two.
In his first six months on Tyneside, Cissé took the number nine role, while Ba was shunted to the left of a front three. The formation worked brilliantly for Cissé and Ben Arfa, and got more out of Jonás Gutiérrez. Ba made the best of it but, his goals drying up, it was a position he was unsuited to.
While Cissé hit the net with astonishing regularity, it was a no-brainer. But this season Cissé has struggled for goals, and other solutions have been needed. Often recently he has been shoved wide, allowing Ba to make the most of his rediscovered goalscoring touch. But there is something faintly futile about playing a goalscorer as a winger.
Ba and Ben Arfa have the skills to adapt, but Cissé’s over-riding talent is as a poacher. Putting him anywhere other than the best position to score from is a waste.
Pardew will know this, but with no credible alternatives – especially with so many fringe players in the treatment room – he has felt obliged to keep searching for a way to accommodate his best players.
It has prompted constant switches from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3 during and between games. The time is coming to accept defeat. Two years ago Pardew strengthened his side by reluctantly selling his best player.
None of his squad is worth the £35m Liverpool paid for Andy Carroll (not that he was) but perhaps history needs to repeat itself a little.
Not selling in the summer sent an important message to Newcastle’s fans, but the situation has changed.
This time they cannot waste half a season before reinvesting, and Ashley must throw in the money unspent last summer.
With a relegation battle and a run at the Europa League knockout stages in the New Year, decisions made or dodged in January could have a massive bearing on Newcastle’s standing in years to come.
Ideally Cissé would be sold. He has less all-round ability than Ba but a higher market value, thanks to the £7.5m release clause in the latter’s contract.
Goalscorers of Cissé’s quality are hard to find, even if Newcastle have traditionally been better than most at unearthing them. But the brutal truth is when Cissé is not scoring, he is not contributing. Ba being so lethal in front of goal makes Cissé expendable.
Offloading Cissé would free funds for scout Graham Carr to work his magic with.
By the time everyone takes their cut, selling Ba would probably not leave enough to improve the team.
As with Carroll in January 2011 and Ba 12 months later, Newcastle must play the waiting game to see if anyone is prepared to risk paying the asking price before they can properly plan ahead.
Losing Cissé and Ba in the same window could be disastrous for Newcastle. Losing one may be a good thing.