Alan Pardew believes Newcastle United have put themselves in a "fantastic position" after capital defeats of two of the standard bearers of the Premier League’s supposed London uprising.
He’s half-right on that front. For while United’s back-to-back defeats of Chelsea and Tottenham – three goals scored, none conceded – gives them the opportunity to maneouvre into a position of strength during the long winter nights they have been here before.
In fact, they are usually here in the Mike Ashley era going on the evidence collected by The Journal. Since the sportswear tycoon arrived on Tyneside in 2007, Newcastle have stood on 17 points after 11 games in three of the last seven seasons. Their average points total for all seven seasons, unsurprisingly, is 17.
And guess what? Chris Hughton – the man who brings his struggling Norwich team to St James’ Park in a fortnight’s time – had lifted Newcastle to 17 points after 11 games in 2007. He only lasted another four games before Ashley swung the axe, bringing in Pardew – a man who, according to Derek Llambias, would be a bolder and more robust presence in the dug-out.
So while the momentum of those wins offers Newcastle real hope of having a say in the Europa League argument in the coming months, it is worth remembering that their start has not yet crossed the line from pleasing into excellent. That old enemy of Pardew’s Newcastle – complacency – can still come back to haunt them if they begin to believe that wins over top-four clubs make them automatic top-four material.
Still, there have been signs in the last fortnight that this is a group of players capable of moving Newcastle forward. From Mathieu Debuchy to Loic Remy – via the inspired heroics of Tim Krul on Sunday – United look on form and confident enough to establish themselves near the top of the mini-league below the likely title contenders.
But they have plenty of boxes left to tick before they can leave behind the uncertainty and inconsistency that was threatening not only Newcastle’s season but also Pardew’s job prospects.
The first priority for Pardew is to establish some sort of home rule over the next few games – and to do this he needs to do something that Newcastle have rarely done this season: dictate the game.
United’s recent wins have come from a counter-attacking strategy that has been played out successfully. Chelsea might have been the away team but Newcastle invited them on, giving them plenty of the ball. It was a similar story at Tottenham, where Newcastle enjoyed just 35% of overall possession. The previous weekend they kept hold of the ball 39% of the time, although they were much more effective going forward – taking 15 shots to Chelsea 13.
Quick, potent counter raids suit this team, which is patrolled perfectly from the centre by Yohan Cabaye. His renaissance in the engine room has been remarkable and the France midfielder has never had a better spell in black and white than the mini-run he is currently on.
Now comes the test that has proved beyond them so far – setting the tone and managing to convince against one of the division’s makeweights.
Norwich City may have provided some light relief for Hughton with a defeat of West Ham but their away form is decidedly dire.
True, they have beaten Stoke City but they shipped 11 in two games against Arsenal and Manchester City. Knowing how Hughton worked during his time on Tyneside (and it was this perceived conservatism that ultimately cost him his job), his first priority at St James’ Park will be to shore things up and keep things as tight as possible for as long as possible.
This poses Pardew and his Newcastle team a dilemma. They have speed and quickness of thought but do they have the concentration and diligence to unpick a team that sits and waits for them to come onto them? For Newcastle fans filing into St James’ Park in a fortnight, memories of Hull City will be too raw for them to take anything for granted.
That day they were picked off by a team that kept it tight and couldn’t believe their good fortune when Newcastle’s attacking intent gave way to concentration lapses that allowed them in.
Before then, there was West Ham – when Sam Allardyce’s negativity defeated Pardew’s best attempts to smuggle three points from a frustrating afternoon. It would have been the same against Fulham but for a late, great thunderbolt from the boot of Hatem Ben Arfa (remember him?)
It fuels the idea that Newcastle’s maddeningly inconsistent season is arriving at a crossroads. Pardew said over the weekend: “We have two home games coming up and we have got ourselves in a fantastic position.”
There is logic to that argument, with United’s 2013 programme sprinkled with opportunity. Manchester United, Arsenal and Southampton are the only three teams that they play in the rest of the calendar year who are above them – and indeed they play three of the bottom five in that same period.
But without a plan to unpick resolute opponents they run the risk of frittering away the momentum built up over two excellent and exquisitely planned raids on a pair of London sides.
In the meantime, Pardew will be keeping his eyes trained on events in Paris next week when France’s play-off clash with Ukraine could have a major bearing on his plans for the rest of the campaign. The road to Rio appears to have focused wandering minds over recent weeks, with all talk of discontent, dressing room rebellion and revolution having dissolved as Newcastle look united once again.
Didier Deschamps might have done Pardew the biggest favour of the season by dropping Cabaye back in August. It shook the midfielder out of his lethargy and left him in no doubt that he had to start playing again to maintain his international place.
If France head to Brazil, we can realistically hope for more of the same in the run-up to the finals.