A funny thing happened at St James’ Park last Saturday. Cheick Tiote, nestled away in the heart of the Newcastle United midfield, touched the ball a staggering 91 times. That was a third more than Yohan Cabaye and Moussa Sissoko – and more than even Arsenal’s Mezut Ozil and Aaron Ramsey, the purveyors of Arsene Wenger’s purring one-touch football.
To put Tiote’s display in some sort of context there were only four players in the Premier League that entire weekend who touched the ball more than the Ivorian did, and two of them play in defence for a team that was walloped.
Touches on their own don’t mean much, of course. Mark Noble was one of the players who was above Tiote and his team were beaten 3-0. But dig deeper and you discover that this was no reprise of Tiote as the turnover king.
Unlike last season, he was a frenzy of channelled energy rather than bounding about to little effect. 90% of his 73 passes (30 more than Cabaye) were accurate enough to find their man and he was an effective link between Newcastle’s impressively energetic back four and their counter-attacking, hard-working front three.
There is a lesson here about the emergence of a new Newcastle style that is reaping rewards. For while we pontificate about Cabaye’s contribution and fret about where Hatem Ben Arfa might slot into the Magpies’ effective and balanced system, it is the contribution of players like Tiote that tells us so much more about United’s recent resurgence.
For Tiote’s soaring contribution is no statistical anomaly. Against Manchester City, he touched the ball 102 times. Against Cardiff it was 66 (more than any other player). This is a team built on industry and efficiency – and Tiote, even without the back-up for the captain’s armband, is clearly its talisman.
Looking back, it all changed this season on Merseyside. Tiote had been benched for the Hull City and Aston Villa games but was recalled to the team that performed so dreadfully inadequately during the first 45 minutes against a refreshed and invigorated Everton side. As the teams headed down the tunnel with United 3-0 down and looking as ragged as they had done at any point since their collapse against Liverpool, the knives were being sharpened for Pardew.
The manager cashed in his chips, dropping the emphemeral Ben Arfa and empowering Tiote to take control of the midfield again. The stats show he touched the ball more than 100 times but the anecdotal evidence of the game was that he was brilliantly responsible and effective in that match: allowing Cabaye the freedom and space to play his game.
Of course, there is a creative side about the Newcastle that has emerged from the ashes of their dreadful first half display at Goodison Park and that has seen Cabaye turn in the kind of performances that have put the Champions League back on his personal agenda. The France international has been outstanding in some games, dovetailing spectacularly with the improving Sissoko.
But Cabaye could always do that. He could do it last season too, but was rarely given the chance in a Newcastle team that seemed to have lost the art of industry that Tiote is bringing back.
It is a lesson that the Magpies must take into this afternoon’s game against a dangerous but beatable West Brom team. The Baggies can play, and in Morgan Amalfitano and the ever-present threat of Stephane Sessegnon have two players capable of causing damage to Newcastle by playing in between the lines. Sessegnon got a lot of joy doing that in last season’s derby with Sunderland but Tiote’s form is good enough to quell too many fears about his potential contribution.
If Newcastle stick to the prescribed game-plan, they might be toasting a fourth straight win as the evening chill descends on Tyneside.
That is some achievement. Newcastle have not won that many in a row since a six-game winning run between March 18 and April 21 in 2012, a hot streak that coincided with the team flirting with the Champions League spots.
A similar run this time around has prompted a few tentative questions in the same vein although Pardew is dodging them pretty skilfully at the moment. His only concession to how well they are playing is that this squad is apparently “stronger” than the team that finished fifth in the Premier League 18 months ago.
He said: “I genuinely feel all questions about where we are going to finish in the league are for February or March really.
“This really is now where the top teams should kick in because they have more resources and a greater talent pool. When you start losing numbers, those teams can consistently win games.
“Whether our group are up to that I don’t know but I think we are stronger than we were two years ago in depth so that bodes well.”
United may have a problem with their crop of younger fringe men but Pardew is convinced that his more senior men might yet have a part to play.
He said: “We haven’t seen a lot of Sammy Ameobi but he is in great form in training. Jonas Gutierrez hasn’t played much this year and neither has Hatem Ben Arfa.
“Paul Dummett has had a great start and is now coming back. Massadio Haidara looks great in training. Papiss Cisse obviously wants to make an impact.
“Suddenly there seems to be lots of options for us. Last year we didn’t seem to have any options at some stages of the season.”
Pardew feels there is a real air of authority about his squad at the moment. They are fit, firing and in-form. Most of all, though, they seem to have been fused together by wins: an air of togetherness that has delivered success.
He said: “Our last training day was one of the best I have had here in three years. That really is good news.
“The reason it was so good was the standard, the quality, the work ethic and the numbers of quality that we had.
“We had more or less a 10 v 10 but the standard was more or less exactly the same between the two teams. It is one of the first times I’ve been close to full strength in terms of numbers.
“This last week we have had Jonas back and Massadio and Dummett back in training. We are actually fully fit at the moment.”