Sometimes you really do have to wonder what goes through the minds of a clubs manager and his superiors. In the case of Newcastle United, I have been wondering that for years, and this summer is a prime example.
My best friend of sixteen years is the epitome of a die-hard supporter of the club. Every year he has a shred of quiet optimism for the months to come, but by January, the flood of expletives that spews from his mouth would rival even the most experienced Royal Navy bosun’s mate circa 1797.
Think back to last season, when Newcastle where in the thick of it for the chase for a top seven finish, but then felt it prudent to let Yohan Cabaye (far and away their best player) shove off back to his native France and the greener pastures that is the PSG bank account – Newcastle’s challenge for a strong finish was gone the minute he left Tyneside.
Not only did Newcastle lose their most influential and creative player, but they lost a substantial portion of their coverage for their back-four. The end result? Newcastle finished the campaign in tenth place, only scoring 43 goals and allowing an unacceptable 59, which would be good enough for the fourteenth best defensive record in the league. Surely Alan Pardew and the Newcastle brass had a plan to get the club back on track – well, yes, they do have a “plan”, but it’s not the plan you would expect.
Fast forward back to this summer. Newcastle were unable to obtain the full-time services of last season’s leading scorer Loic Remy, who opted for a move to Liverpool rather than a return to Geordie country. The club also lost their best defender in Mathieu Debuchy, and it got to the point where Newcastle more closely resembled the dead carcass of a Humpback whale being taken apart piece by piece by ravaging Great Whites. Newcastle had lost their best three players in the span of six months, but never fear, Pardew has a plan, remember?
The acquisition of Siem de Jong (younger brother of Luuk de Jong, who unsuccessfully spent time on loan at Newcastle for the second half of last season) from Dutch giants Ajax was an excellent piece of business. Not to be out done, the club would splash the cash on the talents of Montpellier’s Remy Cabella, in a move that would add further creativity in the final third along side De Jong. The loss of Debuchy was remedied by making a successful move for Feyenoord and Netherlands right-back Daryl Janmaat after he impressed this summer in Brazil, while the move for Monaco striker Emmanuel Riviere (a player with similar qualities to Remy) rounded off four good moves by the north-east club this summer thus far. All gravy for Newcastle, right? Well, no, not in the slightest.
Despite the quality of the signings that have come to the club thus far, these are signings that mask the two biggest problems from last season that have yet to be fully addressed. Regardless of the fact that Newcastle have Tim Krul, who is arguably one of the best shot stoppers in the Premier League, Newcastle’s defense was woeful. Even worse, the disappearing act put on by their midfield in regards to providing cover for the defense was of even greater concern – neither issue has been addressed yet.
The potential of deploying Hatem Ben Arfa, De Jong and Cabella behind Riviere would constitute an incredibly potent attacking quartet that could put on many a mouth watering display, but none of those players are defensively responsible and would not track back if/when possession was lost. The preferred central midfield pairing of Vernon Anita and Cheick Tiote, while full of energy, are coming off a season that could be considered lackluster at best. What is worse, is while they may be good at regaining possession, neither can pull the strings from deep areas the way Cabaye could, and once they did have possession, their preference for short passes leaves Newcastle’s attacking players cut off from their supplies.
The move for Janmaat must be considered a potential singing of the season, but Newcastle’s defensive woe’s had nothing to do with their right flank, a notion which can be corroborated by Debuchy’s numbers last season – the issue rests at center back. Fabricio Coloccini is one of the slowest central defenders in the league, and despite his experience, his lack of pace is routinely exposed, which often causes him to concede fouls in dangerous areas. Mike Williamson was somewhat of a revelation for the club last season along side Coloccini, but in all honesty, the club can do much better.
Further concerns should be raised when looking at Newcastle via the tactics board. Though they deployed in a 4-2-3-1 most often last season, they were far more effective in a 4-4-2. Given that knowledge, one must question the moves they have made this summer. De Jong is a central attacking player, Cabella thrives on the right wing and Riviere doubles as a striker and a left winger – these are moves made that are favorable for the 4-2-3-1.
The problem with a 4-2-3-1, is that without a player of Cabaye’s quality and ability, the back four will be left for dead. If indeed Pardew intends to rely on the more attacking of the two formations this season, then surely the club needed to prioritize their expenditures this summer and gone after a proper anchorman as well as a central defender.
Still and yet, I will commend Pardew for acquiring the talent for his squad that could well produce some brilliant attacking football this season – they could well and truly rival even the biggest clubs in the country in that regard.
The difference between Newcastle and the likes or City, Chelsea, Arsenal and even Liverpool and Everton, is that those clubs can boast reliable midfield combinations and solid play at the back. Unless the Magpies are trying to put on their best impression of the Battered Bastards of Bastogne, they should consider a few more signings that address the issues of last season, else I fear for the state of my friend’s mental health come January once again.