IT is not the scale of Newcastle United's crisis of confidence which is so worrying for Alan Pardew, it is the pace of it.
Seven-and-a-half weeks ago, the manager was inking an eight-year contract to approving murmurs from the black-and-white galleries. A month ago, they were on Wearside playing with a zest and brio rarely spotted on Tyneside this season and a mere 15 days have passed since Pardew saw fit to reassert Newcastle’s Champions League credentials.
Yet a week on from declaring in the bowels of Brugge’s Janbreydelstadion that Newcastle were in a “good place”, he finds himself fighting against a growing tide of Tyneside anxiety.
“We are trying to keep a calm head here,” Pardew contended in the aftermath of United’s latest reverse, a thoroughly deserved 2-1 defeat to Swansea. But if the Newcastle boss managed to maintain a poker face in his Press call, he must be all too aware that all is not right at the moment.
United have spent the majority of the season on the coat-tails of the top five, continually reasoning that one win might put them in contention. But in truth the domestic performances have been sketchy at best; shabby at worst. Back-to-back defeats have merely confirmed what we all feared: thus far, the United of 2012/13 are a shadow of the team that finished fifth last season.
Ever since the club meekly slipped into the Championship, United’s USP has been their ability to bounce back. Hurl a problem at St James’ Park and the players have responded robustly, from selling their key man on deadline day right through to failing to replace him. Losing runs have rarely extended into the danger zone.
But this time, Newcastle’s results are yet to turn. They have fitness worries, granted, but even when they have been able to put the majority of their blue-chip performers on the park, performances have rarely been convincing.
Whatever Pardew might have said on Saturday, Newcastle were anything but that against Michael Laudrup’s men.
On six minutes they were sliced open by Swansea’s agent provocateur Pablo Hernandez, and they would have fallen behind if Nathan Dyer had shown any sort of composure in the penalty area.
For every Demba Ba header or slice of Hatem Ben Arfa magic, there was the spectre of Hernandez or the impressive Michu showing exactly the sort of ‘control’ over crucial areas of the pitch that Pardew yearns for.
It is difficult not to have a measure of sympathy with the League Managers’ Association manager of the year, for many of his problems are beyond his control. The intransigence of the Senegalese FA, for example, was an unwanted and unwarranted headache that prevented him from playing Papiss Cisse and went unresolved until 80 minutes before kick-off.
He is also not the architect of the transfer policy that has left him so perilously short of senior options as fighting on four fronts ravages an ill-equipped squad. Had it been up to him, you suspect, Newcastle would have added the right-back, centre-back and centre-forward that might have nudged them on, rather than going down the risky route of promoting younger players.
Having said that, he was asked the question directly after this defeat and demurred twice. If he is fighting for reinforcements, he is making sure it is not a public battle.
There are other scabs to pick at here. Tactically, United do not appear comfortable in their own skin at the moment. Partly due to the lengthy list of the infirm and ill-disciplined, Pardew has barely retained the same XI this season – and the same could be said of the myriad systems trialled and then cast aside.
The latest debate seems to surround the reversion from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2, which Pardew is adamant has not happened. He argues that the formation is more nuanced than two banks of four, but whatever the intricacies of that point, it certainly isn’t the same free-flowing system that saw Newcastle running riot last Spring.
For a start, it leaves Hatem Ben Arfa playing on the flank when it might be suggested that he should be the focal point of their attack. Certainly he is one of the few in black-and-white who is showing any form, and his brilliance was a rare bright spot on an otherwise joyless afternoon.
A crueller suggestion is that Newcastle have developed a tendency to go direct far too often. It is backed up by Opta statistics (United, with 742 from their first 11 games, have played more ‘long balls’ than any other top-flight team) and is a sore point for St James’ Park regulars.
Swansea struck first, early in the second half. Michu scored it but it was down to a combination of non-existent marking, a rare mistake by Tim Krul and a wonderful cross by Hernandez that allowed his compatriot to stoop and guide the ball past the United ‘keeper.
Jonathan de Guzman added a second from close range. Ba notched a late consolation but it was not enough by any stretch of the imagination.
United barely have time to recollect their thoughts before Thursday’s European game – the first of four critical assignments that loom over the horizon. Pardew has shown before that he is capable of delivering: he must do so again to slow the negative momentum.