Inconsistency is strangling Newcastle United’s attempts to move on from last season’s bitter brush with relegation.
On the field, the team seem stuck in a cycle of boom or bust which has again demanded sharp scrutiny of Alan Pardew’s management. Off the pitch, we still wait to discover the direction of a club which just a few days ago was declaring the cup competitions are no longer a priority for Newcastle United.
It feels messy and the message is muddled. We are a long way from crisis or catastrophe, but the idea the return of football would put the worry of the summer to one side has proved – unsurprisingly – nothing more than a mirage. The uncertainty which started with Joe Kinnear’s appointment back in May has carried into the autumn months and the hoped-for flying start has failed to materialise.
There is an unease about the club which has been picked up on by bookmakers and chancers. There may not have been any substance in the rumours kick-started by incorrigibles at a national radio station that Pardew had offered his resignation to Mike Ashley, but those kind of questions are back on the agenda.
This is not an extreme reaction to a bad 45 minutes on another blue Monday for the Magpies. Instead, it is a reflection of genuine concerns on Tyneside at both the direction of the club and the way this squad seems to be less than the sum of its parts.
Newcastle stand 16th this morning: pegged on the same number of points as both Manchester United and Swansea. Their inconsistency seems to suggest it could go either way but again, the negatives are beginning to outweigh the positives and Pardew is beginning to look a bit embattled.
The statistics paint a confused picture.
Since the January splurge on French talent Newcastle are undoubtedly a more effective side, having collected 12 wins, six draws and 11 defeats from the 29 games they have been involved in.
The previous 29 warranted six victories, nine draws and 14 defeats. That is a virtual 27 points without the newcomers versus 42 with them – a genuine and marked improvement which appears to justify Mike Ashley’s faith in Graham Carr’s recruitment skills.
Yet digging deeper, there must be concerns about whether this is a group with enough genuine leaders to dig themselves out of trouble. Over the summer there was talk of bringing in Premier League know-how to supplement the squad, which appeared to be shorthand for either English players or those with enough top-flight experience under their belts to make nationality an irrelevance.
It didn’t arrive and during the first half on Monday the lack of on-field authority threatened to overwhelm Newcastle. Where were the alpha males in black and white shirts when Everton started to brush aside United’s feeble effort? Only in the second half, when Yohan Cabaye arrived, did Newcastle’s resistance begin.
Performances like Monday’s are happening with alarming regularity. It is a problem for Pardew how often his team simply collapses and he will be fully aware that of the last 14 games they have played they have shipped three or more goals on six occasions, suffering heavy defeats in four of those games (Manchester City twice, Sunderland and Liverpool).
Bizarrely, the rest of those games comprise of four clean sheets and four games where they conceded just a single goal. With this group it seems to be feast or famine with very little in between.
If that tendency is allowed to continue unchecked it is inconceivable Pardew will not be faced with more pressing questions about the way he is managing this group.
Pardew is understood to be considering drastic measures to jerk United out of this destructive cycle.
Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa will be relegated to the bench, Papiss Cisse might stay there and even Hatem Ben Arfa’s match-winning potential might be sacrificed after his alarmingly poor display at Goodison Park.
If anyone sums up United’s desperate unpredictability it is Ben Arfa. So scintillating against Aston Villa and in the second half against Fulham, he simply went missing at Everton.
Newcastle have long since accepted his genius comes with enigmatic unpredictability but his display on Monday seemed to suggest he is not heeding calls to contribute more to the team effort.
One of the men who works with Ben Arfa on his PR was dropped by the player last week, which suggests a certain restlessness on the player’s part. He made headlines for claiming he still dreams of lifting the Ballon d’Or last month but his displays have not backed up that boast.
A personal belief is he is worth the trouble, but the obvious support of the Tyneside public for Ben Arfa should not obscure the questions which should be asked of his overall contribution to the team.
In among all of this uncertainty, one theory can be lanced. Despite talk of Pardew’s position being under pressure, Kinnear appears to have little appetite for undermining the current incumbent and actually taking on the management duties himself. His presence at Goodison Park alongside Ashley was interpreted in some quarters as a deliberate attempt to ramp up the pressure on the manager. Not so, it seems.
A source close to the boardroom suggests Kinnear’s reaction to seeing the team ship six goals in two games is to agree with Pardew’s assessment a physical, goalscoring centre-half should have been on the summer hitlist. Too little, too late. From now until January, Pardew must work with the squad he has – a group that looks more than good enough to earn the top ten finish that was his modest target back in August.
The next four games look absolutely crucial. Cardiff can set the tone and it will be a long and lively international break if they dip anywhere close to Monday’s subterranean level of performance. After that they face Liverpool, Manchester City and Sunderland. This is a critical phase.