The Agenda: What is Newcastle United's best central defensive partnership?

Could under-stated Mike Williamson be the answer to Newcastle United's perfect partner for Fabricio Coloccini?

Stu Forster/Getty Images Newcastle defender Mike Williamson (r) challenges Fraizer Campbell of Cardiff
Newcastle defender Mike Williamson (r) challenges Fraizer Campbell of Cardiff

It was a “remember me?” performance from Mike Williamson.

The Newcastle United centre-back will never be a firm favourite with the fans. He is a throwback defender, lacking the class of Fabricio Coloccini, the elegance of Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa or the heroics of Steven Taylor.

A lower-league journeyman who made it into the Premier League when he won promotion with Newcastle, he seems a natural fourth-choice centre-back in a top-flight squad.

However, Williamson’s assured performance in Saturday’s 2-1 win over Cardiff City suggested he can be more than that.

Cardiff manager Malky Mackay has long thought so. Williamson’s boss at Watford tried to take him to Wales this summer, but the defender preferred to stay put on Tyneside.

He cannot have done so with high expectations of playing a lot of football this season, but perhaps he might after all. Generally speaking, football’s best central defensive partnerships pair a ball-playing defender with a no-nonsense one.

Of all the players at the Magpies’ disposal, Williamson best fits that latter description.

He is quiet, unassuming and limited at times, but when Williamson pulls on a black-and-white shirt you know what you are getting.

Coloccini and Yanga-Mbiwa are both excellent players, far more talented than Williamson – but they both give the impression they can be roughed up by a physical striker.

Even in these days when brains are more highly valued than brawn in the top flight, there are still enough of those about. Williamson, by contrast, loves that sort of challenge.

Having grown up in the Football League, he is the sort of defender who relishes when the ball is launched high in his direction.

The fancier stuff with the ball at his feet is not his cup of tea, but alongside Coloccini or Yanga-Mbiwa it does not matter. They can start the attacks while he concentrates on minding the shop.

It has been a sobering few weeks for Yanga-Mbiwa, given his chance by a suspension for the impetuous Taylor.

At first he looked the part, but six goals conceded against Hull City and Everton ruffled him.

He was substituted at half-time at Goodison Park, his team 3-0 down and seemingly dead and buried.

As TV pundit Gary Neville noted at the time, as a centre-half you have to have a shocker for that to happen to you.

Yanga-Mbiwa’s problem, if it is one, is the man he was apparently signed to replace has not left the club. Yanga-Mbiwa joined from Montpellier in January when it seemed certain Coloccini had played his last game for the Magpies.

Unhappy off the field, the Argentinian was desperate to move back to San Lorenzo in his native Argentina. It was showing on the pitch.

It seemed inevitable he would get his wish.

In came Yanga-Mbiwa, a young player with all his elegance and renowned leadership qualities too.

He captained Montpellier in the Champions League and, when Coloccini was suspended, Newcastle in pre-season.

This summer, though, Coloccini accepted he was not going to get his wish. Tied to a lucrative long contract, Newcastle’s captain is too valuable a commodity for them to let go cheaply and the club he wanted to join could not buy him any other way. He has thrown his lot in with Newcastle for this season and hopefully more.

Yanga-Mbiwa may find he has to bide his time.

Yanga-Mbiwa and Coloccini can play together, as two clean sheets and two wins in their five games as partners have shown.

However, when the opposition have a striker as powerful as Everton’s Romelu Lukaku, it is probably not such a good idea.

In style at least, Liverpool’s Danny Sturridge and Luis Suarez are not the sort of combination to give the pairing nightmares – though on their 2013 form any defenders would struggle to contain them.

The Reds are Newcastle’s next opponents after the international break. Yanga-Mbiwa may be as well equipped as anyone to help Coloccini in the task of subduing that pair.

However, all good sides are built on the stability of a regular central defensive partnership.

Newcastle’s next challenge after Liverpool will come from Sunderland’s Jozy Altidore. Premier League goals might be hard to come by for the American – only one so far in this his second season in the league – but he certainly does not lack physical presence.

Altidore roughed up Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidic at the weekend, and the Serbian is far more fond of a scrap than Coloccini or Yanga-Mbiwa will surely ever be.

Perhaps, then, Yanga-Mbiwa is Coloccini’s natural understudy in the short-term, rather than his partner. Able to also play at left-back, it need not shut the door on him until then.

Like Williamson, Coloccini has plenty of experience alongside Taylor. Newcastle are historically more likely to win with the latter pair, yet paradoxically to concede too.

Their ratio of clean sheets to matches is poorer. You can read too much into those figures – the players around them contribute to them too.

However, Taylor will never be a safe option. His style of play makes him more able to produce moments of brilliance and more calamities. His blood-and-thunder approach invites injuries and suspensions.

The early signs are this will be a season of inconsistency for Alan Pardew’s Magpies. Playing Taylor every week could exacerbate that. The highs will be higher, the lows will be lower.

Perhaps for now, while the Magpies are searching for a bit of form and stability, the rather more boring presence of Williamson is just what they need.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer