Of all the festering sores that needed to be salved by Newcastle United this season, their away form is the closest to being healed.
Alan Pardew’s to-do list over the summer was sizeable. It included, but was not restricted to, the inability to score from set-pieces, the fruitless search for a playing identity and the reversion to a direct approach which seemed to neglect the playing staff that Newcastle actually had.
These were meaty issues that Pardew was faced with and in a series of mea culpas in the summer, he suggested lessons had been learned. The jury remains out on some of them (to return in May, when Mike Ashley has some seriously big decisions to make) but it looks as if Newcastle have improved significantly in both outlook and performances on their travels.
It is a personal belief that managers should be defined by how they respond to problems, rather than the issues that emerge. Any boss can get lucky over 12 months but those who endure are capable of turning around poor runs of form and conjuring imaginative solutions to issues that emerge.
Few were bigger for Newcastle United last season than their away form. Three wins (in all competitions), 14 defeats and just 11 draws: it was a 10% win ratio that undermined most of the progress made during the uplifting previous campaign.
So it should be a cause for celebration that Pardew’s away record has improved markedly this season. Seven wins, six defeats and one draw in all competitions give him a 50% win ratio.
It is far, far better than his combined record since taking over at Newcastle, which reads: 20 wins, 35 defeats and 22 draws since taking over. That is a mere 25% win ratio.
So how has he done it? Scratch beneath the surface and the answers are quite intriguing. United do not play a markedly different style when they go away: 377 short passes have been attempted on their own patch this year as opposed to 363 away from home. They’ve played 56 long balls away from home; 54 at home. It’s not a discernible difference.
Roll through the statistics and that theme repeats itself: possession stats are roughly the same (50% for home games, 47% for away) and so are the type of goals the team scores.
What they are away from home is more compact, crossing the ball 26 times at home and just 16 times away from home. This tallies with the midfields that Pardew has tended to pick this season, with the wing slots handed to Moussa Sissoko and Yoan Gouffran, neither of whom are out-and-out wingers.
The big difference would appear to be in those midfields. Look at how Cheick Tiote, in particular, tends to shine when Newcastle play away from home: he plays an average of 56 passes at home as opposed to 62 away from home. He makes more tackles and interceptions, too.
Sometimes, the devil is in the detail. It is worth questioning whether the tactical tweaking that has made United more formidable away from home has actually changed their approach on their own patch. Indeed it would appear that what has worked away from home for Newcastle might just have suffocated them at St James’ Park of late, where there have been accusations of tactical conservatism from Pardew. It is known that questions were raised within the four walls about the club’s approach against Arsenal at Christmas, when it was felt too much respect was shown to the Gunners. It would help, of course, if Pardew could coax the best out of the strikers at his disposal.
“Papiss (Cisse) is our player so I will lean to him more than Luuk (de Jong),” he said. “He is a player who has signed here for three more years. I have no doubt about that. I have enjoyed my time with Luuk and I really like him.
“He is a real together person and a great pro as you expect from Holland. With all his characteristics he reminds me of Peter Lovenkrands. I terms of his attitude and application I could not ask for better than that?”
The Cisse dilemma, unfortunately, rumbles on. Pardew conceded on Thursday: “He is not on the way out but he needs to find a way back into the first-team. The only way to do that is to play well and score goals. He did OK against Villa but he needs to do a lot better than that. He has been fine in training.
“I think he is searching more so than me for his form. He is not questioning what we do or the chances that are being created, he is trying to find the answer himself. He is still finding the net in training.”