Assuming he strolls unscathed through the alarming collapse in Newcastle United’s form in the post-Yohan Cabaye era, a crop of pressing black and white questions will land with a thud on Alan Pardew’s doorstep in the coming weeks.
For the second summer running, the Newcastle manager has substantial and weighty issues to get his teeth into during the close season – but few loom larger than the team’s tendency to disintegrate when the pressure is on.
For a team often set up with an eye on containment, that is a worry. It also speaks volumes about the character of a side who have conceded three or more goals in five of the last nine games they have played. It is a team with a creativity deficit but also a lack of leadership and drive.
Pardew has tried to apply a sticking plaster to personnel issues before. An upset Demba Ba was pacified at the beginning of last season with a tactical reshuffle that returned him to the central striking role he wanted; Cabaye, equally, was told to get his head down for the months that followed his wildcat strike with the assurance that any interest shown in him in January would be entertained. When confronted by problems emanating from a big player Newcastle and Pardew chose the path of least resistance.
United can not allow the Fabricio Coloccini issue to drag into another season. With all the upheaval that is set to disrupt Newcastle’s plans this summer, is the time for them to lay it on the line to their talisman: he needs to provide assurances that he can give undivided attention to the club next season or find a move that suits both parties. Coloccini’s quality remains. He is, without doubt, the best defender at the club. But his latest return from injury has not arrested the defensive worries that built up during his mid-winter absence.
There are concerns. The 31-year-old remains Newcastle’s captain yet as recently as November he was quoted as saying he wanted to leave “as soon as possible”. That was when he was asked in South America, by friendly Argentinian journalists.
The question was repeated by North East inquisitors after the Fulham game and his reply was instructive. “We have to think about the seven games, and then think about other things, ” he said. These do not sound the battle cries of someone with an insatiable appetite for what is to come in the summer.
Among the questions about transfer policy and managerial direction Newcastle need to consider very carefully who they chose to represent their club next season. To build on this year’s likely top-10 finish they require players with the ability and willingness to handle the pressure of playing for Newcastle United.
At the very least, they need to re-examine the captaincy role because there are legitimate questions about Coloccini’s suitability for it.
Consider the stats: since his original request to leave was lodged in the first week of January 2013, an injury-hit Coloccini has played 33 of the 59 matches Newcastle have played in all competitions – around 59%. In the entirety of the two seasons that preceded that, Coloccini played 77 of the 85 matches United played. That’s 91%. Injuries and a serious personal problem have taken their toll. No one would blame the defender for either of those but if his influence has waned significantly, Newcastle need to be prepared to take a difficult decision.
Three years ago, when Kevin Nolan was edged out of the door after issuing an unwise contract ultimatum to the club there were not many viable candidates to take over the skipper’s duties. This time there is a clear front-runner.
In a season short on unqualified successes, Cheick Tiote is one. If Coloccini comes up short in the full and frank discussions that must be held with him, the Ivorian deserves the opportunity to lead United out next season.
On the last occasion that Newcastle had to make a captaincy call, Tiote could quickly be written off. While he had proved himself a fine defensive midfielder, he was a yellow card waiting to happen.
His rap sheet was wince-inducing: 79 fouls and 14 cards in his first season; 57 and 11 cards in his second campaign and 58 fouls and eight cards in his third season. This year he is down to 50 fouls and just seven cards – none in the last four games.
Tiote is a changed man. A more mature presence on the field who has managed to add a more measured approach to the obvious talent that he has. He is moulding his game to the demands of Premier League referees.
For those that would argue this is proof of his waning influence, they should consider that Tiote is consistently the player who touches the ball most often for Newcastle in Premier League games. In Saturday’s debacle he touched the ball 66 times, the most of any Newcastle player barring Massadio Haidara. Against Crystal Palace, he touched the ball 155 times – many more than midfield colleague Vurnon Anita’s (115).
His progress has not gone unnoticed. Manchester United have made soundings of his representatives and Tiote could be one of those considered susceptible to a summer offer.
Newcastle must nip that in the bud. He is one of the few to emerge from this campaign with credit and if a bloodless captaincy coup is to happen, he is the ideal man to assume skipper’s duties from Coloccini.