As positive as November was for Newcastle United, there remain glitches in the system that Alan Pardew is developing with this emerging Magpies team.
For while they were caught in a web of Howard’s making last night, the problems that led them there were virtually all of their own making – however it might have been spun afterwards.
Referee Webb was guilty of missing a pretty blatant Ben Davies handball in the second half of last night’s horror show for Pardew and his previously bouyant Magpies, but let’s not kid ourselves that the referee was the architect of United’s demise.
He played a contributing role, of course, but this was a night when a strange and counter-productive conservatism descended on a team that had benefited from being released from the shackles as they piled up impressive wins. Last night there was a deference to Swansea that seemed odd. For 45 first-half minutes they stood off to the extent that Swansea built up nearly three-quarters of the possession – as well as lead that came with the first genuine attacking exchange of the night.
And if Webb’s decision to wave away Newcastle appeals for a second time when Ashley Williams shoved Yoan Gouffran early in that second half preceded a second Swans goal, it must also be acknowledged that the defending wasn’t up to scratch.
It was that kind of night for Pardew and Newcastle. It began with two players being laid low by injury and illness and ended with us pondering whether United’s lack of strength-in-depth might yet come back to haunt them in a December schedule which will test the best of them.
Pardew will, of course, point to the previous four games as proof that Newcastle are moving in the right direction and it is important not to over-react to the first genuinely poor performance since their derby disappointment. But United must learn lessons from what transpired last night, and the sight of Newcastle altering their system so early on proved a portent for a night when they struggled to ever really move out of first gear.
Searching for a fifth straight win, Pardew had to be flexible in South Wales last night. It felt as if it might be a problematic evening before kick-off as United lost two of their most potent forward players in the hours before the start – and Newcastle’s performance hardly salved those anxieties.
Had you taken Hatem Ben Arfa and Papiss Cisse out of this Newcastle side a month ago, you would have ripped out the creative heart of the team, but news of their absence (through illness and a heel problem picked up in the warm-up) was given a much more muted response before kick-off.
As well it might, for United have developed into a tighter, more convincing unit without the duo in the side. But for all Newcastle might no longer rely on Ben Arfa to create or supply goals, his absence removed at least one compelling substitute option from Pardew’s armoury and emphasised the paucity of the attacking options in the squad.
However well the team has been playing, the absence of a recognised striker on the bench one in the eye for anyone tempted to suppose a quiet January will not unduly harm the club’s attempts to consolidate their lofty Premier League position.
United might have yearned for an injection of offensive intent after an unconvincing first half. It said it all that Pardew had altered the shape and style of his starting XI within the first half hour, shifting Remy to the wing while Moussa Sissoko reprised the number ten role that he’d played somewhat unconvincingly at the back end of last season.
Newcastle huffed and puffed but even if some of their passing was crisp, they were more conservative than they had been at St James’ Park in recent weeks. The half-time stats told their own story – Newcastle had wrestled just 26% of possession by the break and genuine moments of menace were rare.
True, Remy tested Michael Vorm with a header from Mathieu Debuchy’s cross but if the willing was there, the intent appeared absent.
That reluctance was punished on the stroke of half-time after an uncharacteristic slip-up from Tim Krul when Alejandro Pozuelo swung a hopeful cross into the box. The Holland ‘keeper misjudged the trajectory and parried it on to the boot of Nathan Dyer, who whipped a fizzing volley into the back of the net.
It was a unique challenge for Pardew, whose United team have a tendency of failing to overturn deficits. The Newcastle boss retained the 4-3-3 for the second half but the midfield traffic continued to be dicated by a Swansea side that were making light of the absence of a striker in their ranks. Still, with Remy in their ranks there was also a danger and just before the hour mark it appeared as if he had earned United a penalty when his smart pivot preceded a shot that struck Ben Davies’ arm. Somewhat surprisingly Howard Webb – who let Debuchy off for a nasty late challenge on Pablo Hernandez a minute later – was entirely unmoved.
Newcastle might have felt similarly hard done by when Ashley Williams seemed to apply an unreasonable amount of force to the small of Yoan Gouffran’s back, but what happened next effectively ended the contest.
Swansea broke with intent and Pozuelo dissected the United back four with a wonderful ball that found Shelvey on the charge. As Krul came out to intercept, his block cannoned off Debuchy and Swansea had a second.
Pardew threw Gabriel Obertan on in the latter stages as he went for it but that merely illustrated the paucity of his options. One surging run ended with the French winger tripping over his own toes in a disappointing end. Shelvey’s swirling effort in the late stages capped a miserable night for Newcastle.