If there is any player who symbolised Newcastle United’s dashed expectations last season, it was Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa.
When he first arrived in England, the centre-back appeared perfectly equipped to prosper in the Premier League. He was strong, quick and came complete with a glittering reputation for reading the game perfectly.
With experience of captaining a team to the title and playing at the elite Champions League level, Newcastle seemed to have unearthed another gem.
His achilles heel was his aerial ability, but as anyone who watched Fabricio Coloccini in those early years would attest, that is a skill that can be learned with time. The other stuff? That was what persuaded Newcastle to dive in where others did not tread and part with the thick end of £7m.
Yet when news filtered out from France on Friday that United were prepared to listen to offers for the centre-back, it appeared to confirm one of two things: either Newcastle have badly mishandled this talent or they moved rashly to sign him in the first place.
Is it the latter? Evidence doesn’t support the theory that they are prone to buying poorly in the scouting set-up they have in place. Indeed should United chose to part company with Yanga-Mbiwa, it would mark a first of sorts.
Since Chris Hughton recommended the scouting talents of Graham Carr to Newcastle United in 2010, the club have spent an estimated £43.1m on 16 foreign players. Eight are full internationals and none of the significant first-team additions – to this point – have been sold on at a loss or even lost market value.
The two sold, Yohan Cabaye and Demba Ba, appreciated steeply in value (Cabaye by four times in two years while Ba’s value was dictated by a £7m sell-on clause) before they were exported.
Others, like Cheick Tiote, Moussa Sissoko, Mathieu Debuchy and Yoan Gouffran could reasonably be expected to fetch more than Newcastle paid for them. With a fair wind and reasonable negotiating skills, United would probably break even on the £6.2m they spent on Vurnon Anita.
That leaves Yanga-Mbiwa, who has suffered the oddest of career trajectories at St James’ Park. Originally recruited to replace rather than compete with Coloccini, the retention of the Argentina skipper has clearly affected his development.
United’s plight was stark enough in January 2013 for the club to do something they had never done before: keep a player on big wages that they had already effectively replaced.
Before then Newcastle had always bought with the intention of shifting someone else on: Kevin Nolan’s wages moved off the ledger to make way for Cabaye and so forth.
Yanga-Mbiwa joined when Coloccini was supposed to be leaving, but such was the plight of relegation-threatened Newcastle at the time, Pardew pleaded to try to retain their skipper.
Others felt there was no chance of retaining him but, backed by Derek Llambias, they played hard ball and won. It was a positive for the club but a negative for Yanga-Mbiwa, who has never been able to hold down his place in the interim.
There is a school of thought at St James’ Park that Coloccini and Yanga-Mbiwa do not play well together. There is a bigger anxiety among the coaches that he is not commanding enough in the air. To this correspondent, it would be a crying shame if he was off-loaded at this point. It appears obvious that Yanga-Mbiwa is more of a slow burner and he remains a centre-back laden with potential.
Don’t forget he was outstanding against Chelsea – and then against Tottenham – in the centre of defence before being shunted to right-back for an unhappy final few games of the campaign, where he did look like a player who had gone backwards. Whatever happens with Yanga-Mbiwa, United need to learn the lessons and adapt their recruitment strategy.
At the moment it appears that Newcastle’s approach moving forward will be simply to maintain the status quo while throwing a bit of money at the situation.
This will mean a better-stocked squad and may solve a few of the problems that started to emerge last season but questions must be asked about whether it will really address the fundamental issues that undermined Newcastle in the second half of the campaign.
At best, this approach will be akin to applying a plaster to a festering sore. At worst it will lead them into an unwanted repeat of the Yanga-Mbiwa dilemma.
The solution is that there needs to be a cold, calculating decision about whether they should continue to go ‘all-in’ in the French market.
There were concerns towards the end of the previous season about splits between the large French contingent in the dressing room and others and those must be looked at.
There is a bigger problem here that does not appear to have been addressed: are Newcastle set up well enough to make the most of their superb links overseas?
If they have spent £6.7m on a defender who is technically superb is Pardew the man to take him on? A single line on Lee Charnley’s end-of-season Fans Forum address seemed to reinforce the idea that Pardew is the man for the club, but has there been a rigorous examination of whether he can mould a team of Gallic talents into a side that works?
While Pardew heads for the Monaco sun and the Grand Prix, it feels like any evaluation of last season has been skipped in favour of continuing along the same path as before. They have left themselves with a huge job.
With Yanga-Mbiwa, the production line has tripped out and it has placed a strain on everything.
The scouting team has brought in good players but maybe not players a manager they seem intent on backing can utilise properly. This is a huge problem that needs to be investigated.
If they don’t, the concern is that history will repeat itself. Newcastle could barely manage another 12 months like the one that has just ended.