It may have escaped the attention as discontent continues to bubble on Tyneside, but Alan Pardew now has the most important job at Newcastle United.
While the owner feels the slings and arrows and Joe Kinnear takes cover from the flak coming his way, Pardew now has an unimpeded shot at making this season a success.
He has been hampered by a lack of new additions but this is a squad good enough to improve on last season and the fixture list isn’t too bad if Newcastle want to build a bit of momentum.
Quietly, the odds on Pardew to be the next manager sacked have drifted since Kinnear’s appointment. From 7/4 at the height of the controversy surrounding the arrival of the controversial director of football, he is now 5/1 with most bookmakers. A summer of discontent might actually have strengthened his hand in some bizarre fashion.
Issues remain, though. Here are the key ones Pardew needs to answer if Newcastle are to build on their start to the season.
On the terraces, Cabaye has plenty still to prove following his questionable conduct after Arsenal’s single, unsuccessful bid for him during the transfer window. In the dressing room that is most certainly not the case.
Few of the players in the heavily French-weighted dressing room blamed the midfielder for his stance or feel he has much to apologise for. Indeed it is understood that several spoke up in his defence while the sorry saga was being played out.
So Pardew has a delicate line to walk here: he must recognise that Cabaye has a penance to pay in public while also trying to re-integrate their most creative and influential player into a team that will benefit from his imagination.
Perhaps the delicate line should give way to a tough one. Cabaye was not consistent enough last season and Pardew should not be afraid to keep him lingering on the bench as long as he can find a system that creates opportunities for his front two. The onus is on the midfielder to prove his worth to club and country – and Pardew should not shy away from reminding him of that.
REDISCOVERING A TEAM IDENTITY
Things were better against Fulham but lets not pretend the questions about Newcastle’s style of play have been vanquished after a single-goal victory over an unambitious Fulham. Pardew reckons the ‘system’ conversation last season – should it be 4-4-2, 4-3-3 or some variation in between the two – was a pointless one.
He argues that it is about threatening the goal more, and that is more a mentality problem than a formation issue.
But it is a problem that you couldn’t now name United’s starting XI or the system they will play. All the great teams in the Premier League have an identity: think Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson, Chelsea under Jose Mourinho (first time around) or even – more realistically given Newcastle’s aspirations – Everton under David Moyes. The Toffees were a tough, well-organised and dangerous side.
Newcastle are still grasping for that. Against Fulham the team had been moulded round Hatem Ben Arfa’s talents, but it marginalised Papiss Cissé. They play with wingers but didn’t seem to have much width. Could anyone say with confidence what Newcastle’s starting team – and system – will be at Aston Villa on Saturday?
Whatever Pardew might think, it is right to focus on systems. United need to develop a recognisable one because it will breed confidence in his players. Familiarity helps.
One good thing has already happened this season – United seem to be playing fewer long, hopeful balls. With Loïc Rémy and Cissé set to force the issue up front, the emphasis will be on creativty and trying to thread balls through the opposition defence.
SOLVING THE PAPISS CISSE ISSUE
Papiss Cissé hasn’t played well this season. He hasn’t played badly either: he’s just barely been involved. Seven shots in three games (including two at home, when Newcastle were in the ascendancy) is a poor contribution from a player who is a rapier threat on his day.
The frustration levels with the striker are rising but let’s look deeper for some solutions. United’s two wide players for the two home games were Sylvain Marveaux and Ben Arfa, who have attempted 17 and 19 crosses respectively this season. Marveaux has found his man with just seven of those crosses; Ben Arfa with five of them.
The rampaging full-backs who have been instructed to get forward have hardly done much better. Mathieu Debuchy has hit two successful crosses from 12; Davide Santon has had just one from 11. Cissé has been operating on scraps.
Hopefully the addition of Remy will give him a new lease of life – but no striker can survive on such limited service.
Cheick Tioté is back for the Villa trip but Vurnon Anita must be retained. After two smart performances in the heart of midfield so far this season, it is clear that he has a role to play.
He might not fit the template of a Newcastle midfielder in the Pardew era – he doesn’t have the power of a Moussa Sissoko or the determination of a Tiote – but he is the right player for United right now. He retains the ball well and the sketchy form of Sissoko has improved markedly with Anita’s unfussy contributions. His passing accuracy – 88.6 % from the first three games – is the best of any midfielder or forward at the club.
Tioté has tended to be a cast-iron starter under Pardew but that would be seriously unfair on Anita. Dropping him would send the wrong message and be hurtful to the team.
In all competitions Alan Pardew has managed 16 wins from 55 away games, a win percentage of just under 30%. That was negatively affected by just three in 28 games last season (Aston Villa, Metalist Kharkiv and QPR).
At the start of the campaign they were too open (see Arsenal last Christmas when the Gunners were gifted eight goals), but towards the end of the campaign they felt negative and tentative. They were too concerned about what their opponents could do to them and the performances were woeful.
Discovering a happy medium is the key. A winnable game against a Villa side not short on confidence has to be the starting point for Pardew this year.
A forceful display – and a system that sets out their intent – is the start.
PRESS CONFERENCE POLITICS
Pardew has a problem: he is the voice of a regime that has subterranean approval ratings among its supporter base.
The statement that was released under his name last week was unsatisfactory and when he addresses the media on Thursday, the United boss will know that he is a lightning rod for criticism of the Ashley regime.
He knew this was a condition when he got the job, of course. But it doesn’t make it any easier and this is a classic no-win for the Newcastle boss.
The ideal would be for Pardew to tell the unvarnished truth, but the suspicion is that this would put Joe Kinnear in the firing line. So he must find a diplomatic way to remain onside with his employers while paying more than lip service to the supporters. It is an unenviable position.
What will probably happen is Pardew will talk about moving on, pushing forward the talents of his existing squad. It is unlikely to pacify many.
All of this is important to an extent. But there is a simple solution for the manager, and one that he knows will negate his need to play a political game: simply to win games.