Newcastle United have gone from having English football’s most potent midfield mix to the Premier League’s equivalent of bromide in three quickfire months.
For all that the Magpies’ blunt frontmen need to sharpen up, there is a common thread through their post-Christmas struggles: the midfield goals have dried up.
And with that in mind, surely it is time for Alan Pardew to freshen up an engine room that is in danger of running out of gas.
Here are two stats to get Newcastle fans thinking: firstly, no team in the Premier League is more reliant on midfield goals that Alan Pardew’s.
Thanks to left-winger Yoan Gouffran’s seven-goal haul and the now departed Yohan Cabaye’s magnificent seven, their midfield has provided more than half of the 37 goals they’ve notched this year (21 out of 37).
That is more than Arsenal, who have 26 out of 53, and even Spurs, whose struggles to find a prolific goalscorer have so undermined Tim Sherwood’s hopes of a permanent contract in charge.
Contrast that with this stark figure on Saturday: no other central midfield pairing fielded in the Premier League that day had harvested fewer goals this season.
With Vurnon Anita’s single strike at Hull and Cheick Tiote’s barren campaign, United boasted just one goal between them.
With that in mind, it rather feels as if the Hull result – when three of the four goals were scored from midfield – was something of a mirage.
Something, surely, needs to change soon. Pardew’s blueprint this season has been pretty clear: keep things narrow, make sure the personnel are industrious and responsible and – most importantly – move the ball quickly to the stars who can make things happen.
It doesn’t take much for the plan to get exposed. One of the creative players that Pardew wanted to move the ball to quickly has departed – Cabaye now pulling the strings for Paris Saint Germain rather than Newcastle.
Another, the scintilating Loic Remy, is currently on the sidelines and the wild-card option – Hatem Ben Arfa – is in cold storage with a parting of the ways looking increasingly inevitable with every passing week.
Pardew must hope for a couple of things. Firstly, that through the fog of confusion that will settle on St James’ Park the moment the season ends, Mike Ashley and Graham Carr deliver him another player capable of shouldering the creative burden that Cabaye managed to do so effortlessly.
Secondly, he has to believe that he can come up with an alternative plan to the one that is so utterly reliant on the ruthlessness of Remy in front of goal.
So far, there has been little attempt to tinker with a formula that has seen Moussa Sissoko shifted to the right with two central midfielders asked to work industriously behind a number ten and striker, or a forward pairing.
That seemed to work when it was Cabaye who had the responsibility of supplying the goals and passes for Remy et al – but without him, Newcastle’s system can be too easily worked out.
The answer? Pardew must acknowledge that the system was built around Cabaye and change it.
The alternative is the inconsistency that has sapped much of the pre-Christmas goodwill.
It is instructive that Yoan Gouffran, so important to Newcastle’s winter charge, has seen the goals dry up of late. He notched seven before December 26 and has struck none since. Newcastle might consider re-assigning him and deploying him as a striker in the final run of the season – especially with Shola Ameobi and Papiss Cisse offering so little in terms of firepower.
They should also look at Sissoko’s role. The France midfielder has the potential and physique to be a midfield powerhouse but he has patrolled the right flank all season, powering up and down the wing since the start of the campaign. It is time to give him a run as a central midfielder, not a number ten, winger or defensively-minded cog in the engine room.
What would that mean for Tiote and Anita? The sad truth is that Anita – with just 0.4 shots per game – and his Ivorian counterpart – who has taken just 1.2 per match – might be battling for one spot when Remy Cabella or another playmaker is brought in.
A personal feeling is that the former Ajax man is a smarter footballer, and Newcastle might play more progressive football with him in the system.
More practically, Newcastle need to sign a player in the summer who can score goals. They have a good record with scoring midfielders recently, Cabaye having replaced the equally prolific Kevin Nolan.
Finding their own version of Southampton’s Adam Lallana (seven goals and counting so far this term) in the close season is a priority. Journal columnist Don Hutchison – who spent most of his career playing as a midfielder or a number ten – agreed that the lack of goals coming from midfield is a problem to be addressed in the summer.
“Look at the top teams: every single one of them will have a couple of midfielders who can weigh in with at least ten goals between them. The really successful ones will have one player who can do that,” he said.
“I think that Newcastle’s midfield is quite a narrow one. Moussa Sissoko and Yoan Gouffran have always played quite narrowly, they’re not really what you would call out-and-out wingers and so it is a different kind of midfield. But without Yohan Cabaye they do have a tendency to look a bit ordinary at times.
“Cabaye scored a lot of goals and Newcastle are going to have to look at someone like him again in the summer. Where do you find a player of that quality though?”