Alan Pardew uttered something controversial on Sunday.
While the Football Association saw sense and allowed him to escape with a slapped wrist for the invective aimed in the direction of Manuel Pellegrini in a heated touchline confrontation with the Manchester City boss, his less discussed pre-match statements deserve much deeper scrutiny.
Asked by Sky to explain the logic behind his team selection, Pardew identified Yohan Cabaye’s advanced role behind Loic Remy and pin-pointed it as the key role. “The number ten position is so important in modern football,” he reasoned.
Speak to those who have observed Pardew first-hand in his four-year term at Newcastle United and they will tell you that the search for an attacking player that he can deploy in the number ten role has been a constant theme. It explains everything, from the club’s interest in Ajax’s forward-thinking midfielder Siem de Jong to the way he initially utilised Moussa Sissoko – who had been playing a much deeper role for Toulouse before he joined Newcastle.
Although The Journal’s understanding is that nothing is in the pipeline for a player Newcastle have long admired, Ajax’s talented de Jong might well represent Pardew’s perfect January signing.
Having dropped Sissoko on to the right after his influence waned in the number ten position, Pardew is still effectively searching for a player who might find that role second nature.
Central to his tactical philosophy since Andy Carroll left, dropping a player in behind a lone striker has been absolutely pivotal to the way United have developed this season – and also explains why they have given a bloody nose to so many of the top-four challengers. Cabaye has been deployed there three times recently: twice with great success against Manchester United and Manchester City. It has, usually, worked.
The problem with going with that strategy is that it reduces the impact that Cabaye might have in a deeper role. That didn’t seem to matter against City’s millionaires, but when Arsenal visited St James’ in December, the Gunners found a way to block out the France midfielder – and it made Newcastle look toothless.
Perhaps Pardew, who is keen to absorb lessons from other clubs in the Premier League, might start to look at the success that Liverpool are having this season with a more orthodox front two of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge and start to explore the possibilities of partnering two forwards that might not look as if they can play together.
Suarez and Sturridge have dove-tailed lethally at Anfield, just as Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney have done on the occasions when David Moyes has had them at his disposal at Manchester United. Could the out-of-sorts Papiss Cisse be the key to Loic Remy re-asserting himself as a scoring force again at St James’ Park?
Last week, former pro Don Hutchison argued in his first Journal column that striking partnership should come back into fashion. “It would solve a lot of scoring problems,” he argued.
Under Pardew, we might never find out. Cisse and Remy have played together just twice this season, in the win at Aston Villa that preceded a defeat against Hull City. More often than not, when United have played with two up front it has been Shola Ameobi alongside Remy.
The efficiency of that system was beyond question while United made rapid progress in the mid-winter months but Remy’s recent form – and he endured another barren afternoon against Manchester City – has been a cause for concern. He has not scored in nine of the last ten Newcastle games he’s played: that is a problem.
The days of great United striking partnerships might not be over – Pardew has reverted to 4-4-2 when he feels it best fits the assignment in hand – but they have certainly been mothballed under this manager.
Think back to the last orthodox striking duo that Newcastle had and you have to reel back to the Championship era, when Peter Lovenkrands and Carroll were dismantling second tier defences. That was under Chris Hughton, who quickly dropped his preference for two frontmen in favour of a reinforced midfield to help Newcastle cope with the transition back to the top flight.
Pardew inherited Carroll but not for long, and while he did turn Newcastle into a more direct attacking force for a while – Joey Barton’s long diagonal balls were the best method of attack for United in his early days – there was progression over the close season. Cabaye, as ever, was the fulcrum of a more fluent and formidable Newcastle after Barton, Carroll and Kevin Nolan were ushered out of the exit door.
There was, of course, a brief and largely unsuccessful experiment with Demba Ba and Cisse as a front pairing – something that ended when the former made it very clear that he was not willing to sacrifice his own personal ambition by doing the latter’s donkey work. Despite the best efforts of Pardew, and one thing that no one could accuse him of is not attempting to to alter things to find a solution, the duo never seemed to gel.
Against Manchester City, United looked livelier but Remy’s problems do not appear to be fading.
Add to the mix Cisse’s struggle for form – and news of interest from overseas surely indicates that he is getting restless – and Newcastle’s need for fresh striking reinforcements becomes acute.
The question is: if United did manage to clinch a deal, would Pardew be prepared to try to develop a front two?