Five steps to save Newcastle United

TYNESIDE awoke to a blizzard on Monday. It was not just the ominous storm that carpeted Tyneside in snow, though.

St James' Park
St James' Park

TYNESIDE awoke to a blizzard on Monday. It was not just the ominous storm that carpeted Tyneside in snow, though.

It was the usual flurry of cross-Channel tales about players arriving at Newcastle before the end of January.

Forget France internationals Mapou Yanga-Mbwia or Youann Gouffran, though, Newcastle’s improvement must be generated from within. Here are five key areas to address before the Aston Villa game – and how United can drag themselves out of the mess.

WHAT is the old saying about lies, damn lies and statistics? No doubt Alan Pardew will be repeating that when it is revealed that his Newcastle team, thus far, play more long balls every game than any other team in the top flight.

On average, United hit 71 long balls in a match. The next on the list is Fulham, on 67, Everton on 65 and then West Ham, Norwich and Sunderland who are all on 64.

Now there is nothing wrong with an accurately hit long ball – but the implication from their league position is that Newcastle don’t have the players to play a more direct style. Perhaps in the days of Andy Carroll, Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton it would have worked to pitch long diagonal balls in; but with personnel like Vurnon Anita, Papiss Cisse and Sylvain Marveaux it doesn’t look like the best use of personnel.

It is even less efficient without Demba Ba, strong enough and mobile enough to make the most of it when Newcastle went down the aerial route.

Part of this is down to accident rather than design. Injuries have undoubtedly hit United hard: their first-choice engine room pairing of Yohan Cabaye and Cheick Tiote have played together

The loss of Cabaye hit Newcastle hard, as we saw from his 75-minute spell on Satuday. He was magnificent: the passing metronome who set the tone for an excellent first half.

Whatever the cynics might say, that is how Alan Pardew wants his team to play. That is how he has told them to play. But when the pressure is on, they seem to lack either the determination or the faith in themselves to keep passing.

Hopefully the return of Cabaye – and the possible acquisition of Moussa Sissoko, which is something United’s hierarchy are working hard to do – will remedy that.

THE catch-all term for systems, formations and selection is often used against managers when things aren’t going for them – without giving them credit for how well they performed when things were.

Pardew was smart and fluid in his strategies last season and it pushed United into fifth. This year the lack of fluency in Newcastle’s play has forced him to change things numerous times – sometimes even during games.

The team has changed, players are playing away from their normal positions and it seems like the 4-3-3 that suited United last year hasn’t been given much of an airing either. In short, it is difficult to see a consistent strategy.

Part of that is down to injuries, but it will come to a head when Hatem Ben Arfa returns. Where will he play?

A QUICK straw poll of Newcastle supporters on Twitter about what Pardew’s biggest concern looking ahead to the Aston Villa match threw up some common themes. Of the 239 replies received within an hour of posting the query, 56 replied that ‘Tactics and substitutions’ are the biggest area of concern. Thirty nine said the shape of the attack – most mentioning Shola Ameobi’s posting on the right wing on Saturday – 29 said he should be bolder and more astute with substitutions.

Other common themes were Jonas Gutierrez, who was nominated by 17 people. Their opinions varied from playing him in a different position to dropping him. Mike Williamson, perhaps unfairly, was another name that regularly cropped up – 16 said that he should be dropped.

Remedying the problems with their set pieces was nominated by 11 while rebuilding the team’s confidence was also put forward by 11 followers.

Nine replies nominated Cisse, with most saying that he needed a striker partner and wasn’t being used properly.

Interestingly, only five said Pardew should go.

THIS is no time for twitchiness but there was a nervousness about St James’ Park on Saturday. Pardew called it “negativity” but that is bound to follow a run like the one United are on.

For the last three seasons we have grown used to United responding in times of adversity.

The Championship season was one effort to prove their critics wrong while Newcastle under Pardew have made a habit of producing eye-catching results when the spotlight is on them: think the Liverpool win after Hughton’s sacking, or the defeat of Sunderland at the Stadium of Light last year – which set up the season. This year, United have stumbled when they’ve needed to respond. The Swansea game and last Saturday were two occasions when Newcastle needed to win – but, collectively, they failed.

We are told that this is a united unit but there are too many with their eye off the ball of late. Demba Ba was clearly angling for a move away while Fabricio Coloccini is distracted. Ben Arfa talking of a move to Paris Saint Germain may have been perfectly innocent, but it is unhelpful. The collective needs to be put before the individual, however bruised the ego might feel at being moved out of possession or onto the bench occasionally.

Pardew needs leaders, and those who are prepared to take responsibility for the club’s current predicament. Coloccini is the captain but isn’t playing like it – or really setting the right example by looking to move on. If Newcastle weren’t in such dire straits, it would be prudent to let him go. In their current situation, they just can’t afford to – but at a time when Newcastle need to be united, is it worth having someone here under suffrance?

The leadership void could be filled by Cabaye, on Saturday’s evidence, and hopefully the return of Steven Taylor will prove similarly inspiring. The more who’ve been here before, the better.

WHICH Premier League manager said this? And before you answer, the manager is not who you might think.

“It’s difficult for a foreign player to come in during January and make an impact unless he’s had a taste of it before. I’ll be looking more for players who have that experience.”

It’s Roberto Martinez, whose Wigan team sits in the relegation zone and who fielded a team with no English players on Saturday.

United’s transfer policy is a risk, no doubt. Mathieu Debuchy will clearly be a huge asset but he is still getting to grips with the English game. In time, you suspect, he will progress to be one of the best right-backs in the league but it will be difficult to be pitched into a struggling side.

Newcastle’s blueprint of bringing in mostly French internationals relies on them to settle in fast to affect a change. As Martinez will testify, that is not necessarily a given.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer