When Moussa Sissoko arrived at St James’ Park on a snowy January morning to be introduced as a Newcastle United player, he sat on the stage and exuded the sort of cool confidence that made you sit up and take notice.
Sissoko was a midfielder with a Rolls-Royce engine, we were told. Whether we believed it or not, there was no doubt that Sissoko did – and he hardly baulked at the comparisons with Patrick Vieira that were drawn for him.
Ten months on – after an initial burst of brilliance that saw him motor past Ashley Cole in that memorable evisceration of Chelsea – Newcastle fans might be tempted to ask what is underneath the bonnet.
Surely this is a problem for Newcastle. While we spend hours dissecting Hatem Ben Arfa’s performances and gnawing our nails at the prospect of a Fabricio Coloccini-less United taking on the Premier League’s most potent strikeforce there is an issue right in the heart of the Magpies’ midfield.
Sissoko can clearly play. Not only does he look the part, with physical presence to match a sure touch and rare poise, but he can score goals too. So why is his manager now talking about getting him out of the safe six out of 10 zone and into the sevens and eights on a weekly basis?
Put to Alan Pardew, there is an admission that all is not quite right with the January capture from Tolouse.
“With Moussa, I think he’s a player who’s perfect for the Premier League in terms of his physical stature, his mentality, his work rate and his quality,” he says.
“There have been games this season where he’s probably not reached the heights that he hit when he first arrived. But there have been other games where he’s been very, very strong. I think he’s getting the balance right.
“He’s one of the players we’re looking to for consistency of performance. If we can get him consistently in the sevens and eights, then he’s going to be a massive asset for the club.”
Sissoko’s struggles can simply be seen as a symptom of the poor form which undermined Newcastle last season – or might be something deeper.
Tactically Newcastle haven’t really unlocked his potential yet either, with debate about where his best position is.
United’s 4-3-2-1 formation gives Sissoko a more defensive role alongside Cheick Tiote while Yohan Cabaye flies forward, but perhaps it reins in some of his more natural instincts.
He is flexible enough to be able to fulfil that role but simply settling for a six-out-of-ten Sissoko seems a shame. He has the potential to be United’s Vieira.
He explains: “When I first came here I scored a few goals very quickly. But last season I played at No 10, more attacking and now I am playing more as a number eight, more defensive.
“I have to stay in the middle and sometimes I go forward, but when we have Hatem Ben Arfa, Loic Remy, Yoan Gouffran, four or five players who are very offensive, then I have to stay back and be disciplined. But this season is very long and maybe I will score in the next game.
“I like both positions in midfield but I play for the team and that is it. Whatever the manager says I will play there.” Goals, understandably have been hard to come by.
He counters: “For me, it is much more important that the team wins. If I score it is fine, it’s good, but it is so much more important that the team plays well and gets three points.
“The team is very confident that we will win against Liverpool and we can beat them.”
Confidence seems to be a consistent trait this season but consistency is what the team is scratching for.
Sissoko explains: “Everyone feels good because Cardiff City was the last game and we played well and won.
“We have come back from the international break and we are all very happy, but Saturday against Liverpool will not be an easy game for us, although if we play well we will win,” he said.
“For Newcastle, the start of the season has not been too bad and it has not been too good either. Against Aston Villa and Cardiff the team played very well but in the first half at Manchester City and at Everton we were bad. Together we have to work hard and make the team better.”
There is a sense that Newcastle’s season is building towards something and the fixture list over the next few weeks does not make particularly pleasant reading.
The derby awaits next week but today is a big game for Pardew. Newcastle always seem to have red letter days against the reds of Liverpool but few were more difficult than when the two teams met last season at St James’ Park.
Liverpool ran six past Newcastle in one of the most embarrassing performances witnessed on Tyneside for years. Sissoko is aiming to bury those recollections today.
He said: “No, I’ve never lost a game 6-0. It was very hard to take. When you lose 6-0 in a game it is never easy. I think me and all the other players have tried to forget last season and move on. It’s a new season and a new start.
“Yes, I was embarrassed and angry. I was angry because when you lose 6-0 it is very hard on you. You are also very sad. This feeling was bad and thankfully it was a long time ago.”