With three wins on the trot, two against sides competing for the Champions League places, Newcastle United are starting to get a bit of momentum.
It is a mini-run achieved by a starting line-up missing Vurnon Anita – widely regarded as one of their best performers this season, Hatem Ben Arfa, Papiss Cisse and for all but one of the games, Fabricio Coloccini.
Coloccini missed the win over Chelsea through injury, and was left on the bench at Tottenham Hotspur. He got a game against Norwich City on Saturday because Mathieu Debuchy was suspended.
Anita, Ben Arfa and Cisse have been fit for all three games.
While they watched from the sidelines, Mike Williamson and Shola Ameobi played. Even Williamson would surely not argue Coloccini is not a better defender. Not that Cisse has either, but Ameobi is still to score in this season’s Premier League. The 11 best players do not always make the best team.
The bald statistics may show that Ameobi has failed to score in five Premier League starts and a substitute appearance, but they do not measure his contribution.
Cisse is a non-scoring goalscorer. Take the goals out of the Senegalese striker’s game and there is not an awful lot left. It need not be a criticism when he is as prolific as in his first season on Tyneside, but that is starting to feel a very long time ago. With Ameobi, goals are a bonus, not a necessity. The targetman’s game is about bringing others into play, rather than showing the selfishness the very best forwards need. His performance against Norwich was a case in point, an assist for Yoan Gouffran only a small part of his contribution.
Ameobi’s ability to hold the ball up means when Newcastle counter-attack, they can do so in numbers. Remy and Cisse tend to go it alone. His intelligence pulls holes for others to exploit, another incentive for midfielders to attack. Against the Canaries some canny passing even fed them the ammunition.
If Ameobi seems able to perform above himself at times, the opposite can too often be true of Ben Arfa. The playmaker wins games. The question is at what cost?
Alan Pardew has decided he is a luxury he can do without.
No doubt a few high-profile clubs – Liverpool are long-time admirers – would happily take Ben Arfa off Newcastle’s hands but for the time being Pardew has decided there is no place in the side for him.
The Magpies have stumbled upon a way of playing which is dangerous on the counter-attack and hard-working. Ben Arfa does not meet the second of those descriptions.
Whatever his actual position, Ben Arfa is at his most dangerous between midfield and attack. At this moment, Loic Remy is a better fit, supplying a regular stream of goals from a position just off Ameobi. The wide players, Gouffran and Moussa Sissoko, are expected to work hard so the full-backs have the freedom to go forward. Debuchy, in particular, looks a much poorer right-back without a bit of added protection.
Ben Arfa’s time will come again as the team evolves, but for now he must be sacrificed.
Are there lessons to be learned for the team down the road as Gustavo Poyet searches for the right Sunderland formula?
The Black Cats have their own goal-free striker, whose all-round centre-forward play is not backed up by the currency No.9s are supposed to deal in. His name is Jozy Altidore.
They also have a playmaker in Emanuele Giaccherini they are struggling to find a role for.
The Italian has not had a lot of luck recently. Having difficulty getting a foothold in Sunderland’s game at Stoke City from the left wing, he had not long been released into a free role when Wes Brown was wrongly sent off. With the Black Cats a man short, it was obvious who had to make way for another centre-back.
So do Sunderland need to take a leaf out of Pardew’s coaching manual? Probably not.
Circumstances at the Stadium of Light are very different, and so therefore are the solutions.
Playing Ameobi and not Ben Arfa works for Newcastle because they have midfielders able to break into opposition penalty areas and do damage when they get there. Sissoko might not have scored this season, but he will. Yohan Cabaye and Gouffran have five goals between them. Sunderland only have one such midfielder. Craig Gardner has made two starts and an 18-minute cameo from the bench under Poyet. The starts came in his opening match at Swansea City, and the League Cup tie with Southampton when the Uruguayan tried a spot of squad rotation. With his contract up in the summer, a January transfer cannot be ruled out.
Take away Gardner, and Giaccherini is their only real goal threat. Sebastian Larsson is good for the odd free-kick, but with two club goals in the last season-and-a-half, he is hardly one to have opponents quaking in their boots.
Jack Colback and Ki Sung-Yeung have a goal between them in English football. Lee Cattermole’s last was in 2008.
Newcastle play differently to Sunderland. Ameobi, like Altidore, lends himself to more direct football, and quick breakaways. If there is one thing Poyet does not like his players to do, it is rush matters. Patience is now the order of the day when Sunderland are in possession.
Like Pardew, Poyet will realise the best players do not necessarily make the best team. But that does not mean he can necessarily afford to do without the luxury of Giaccherini.