CHRIS Hughton’s quiet transformation of Newcastle United has been a steady one, but at Goodison Park on Saturday the velvet evolution took perhaps its biggest step forward.
Entirely in keeping with the man himself, Hughton’s work in the transfer market has never been dramatic, nor very wide-reaching, but has produced a side reinforced with the steel so desperately lacking two seasons ago.
After four games of unchanged teams, Hughton unveiled a remodeled midfield with plenty of guile to complement the graft on Saturday.
Even in hammering Aston Villa, the Magpies’ football was often of the basic-but-effective variety.
Now Newcastle seem as well equipped to dismantle teams as batter them.
With two players making first starts in English football it is way too early to rush to excited conclusions, but playmaker Hatem Ben Arfa’s flair lived up to the hype while Cheik Tioté revealed himself to be a more expansive ball-winner than most.
Yet Newcastle retained the fighting qualities which allowed them to go toe-to-toe with one of the division’s toughest scrappers.
The widely-held feeling at Goodison Park is Everton have performed far better than their customary poor start would suggest. There were no such complaints on Saturday.
Manager David Moyes said: “We had no chances until after 90 minutes, so we will not kid ourselves.
“They outfought us in midfield, simple as that.”
While there were just as many players between the back four and Andy Carroll, they were arranged differently.
Kevin Nolan was deeper, Hatem Ben Arfa more narrow and Tioté more mobile than Alan Smith, as a determined run to the edge of the area after 15 minutes showed, even if the Ivorian’s shot was weak.
There were enough touches and flicks to suggest this holding midfielder will not simply be a fifth defender.
It was Ben Arfa who stole the show, however.
A decisive goal from 25 yards just before the break after making space on his left foot was the highlight, but there was plenty more to enjoy.
The Frenchman’s past points to a temperament more suspect than Laurent Robert’s, but there is flair on a par with David Ginola to be had if Hughton can manage it.
Starting more slowly than Tioté, initially there was just the cleverness of thought and touch to enjoy, but the cutting edge came on 21 minutes when Ben Arfa beat two men as he drifted inside, then threaded a lovely pass to Nolan, who was offside.
Later he ghosted inside Yakubu, forcing Leighton Baines into a desperate tackle on Carroll.
Ben Arfa’s wanderlust allowed José Enrique to get forward to good effect in a game where crosses looked the most likely avenue for either side, never more effectively than when serving up an early centre Wayne Routledge ought to have headed home.
Leon Osman was unable to exploit the gaps the Frenchman occasionally left when Everton counter-attacked.
As the two French speakers brought something new, there was a steady reliability from returning Merseysiders Nolan and Joey Barton.
A good tackler, passer and shooter, Barton provides balance and, when his radar is working better, can tee up set pieces for Carroll, while Nolan’s ability to run into the gaps in defences remains.
With Smith’s defensive qualities, Jonás Gutiérrez’s running and – when fit – Danny Guthrie’s passing, Hughton has scope to alter the blend to suit the occasion.
The midfield’s only real concern at the moment is Routledge. The player who allows Newcastle to tick the box marked “pace” is yet to convince he can make the most of it at this level.
He whipped in a few crosses, but the only one which caused Tim Howard real concerns deflected off a defender.
Brilliantly released by Ben Arfa with 20 minutes to go, Routledge lacked the conviction to take on vulnerable-looking former Magpies defender Sylvain Distin, and a promising chance went begging.
Sloppy marking at a re-taken free-kick allowed Yakubu an injury-time shot which bounced off the post, then Tim Krul before landing in the substitute goalkeeper’s arms, and it took good defending later from Tioté and Fabricio Coloccini to preserve Newcastle’s first away league win this season.
Another worry is the indiscipline of James Perch.
A lunge in front of Steven Pienaar’s third-minute shot was typical of the right-back’s commitment, but another into the South African on the hour showed his achilles heel.
With Krul finally making his Premier League debut after Steve Harper fell victim to a clumsy and unnecessary tackle by former Newcastle target Jermaine Beckford, the changes may not have stopped yet, although if the Dutchman’s defenders continue to give him so little to do, he may struggle to make his case.
SUBSTITUTES (not used):
NEWCASTLE UNITED (4-5-1)
SUBSTITUTES (not used):
Ben Arfa 45
Beckford 33, Fellaini 63; Perch 59, Enrique 66, Nolan 69
Andre Marriner (West Midlands)
Shots: Everton 8, Newcastle 9
Corners: Everton 3, Newcastle 6
Fouls: Everton 15, Newcastle 20
Offsides: Everton 3, Newcastle 1