Newcastle’s league campaign so far could be best characterised under the expression ‘meh’, after a series of lacklustre performances. With key players missing through injury and the club’s relatively small squad stretched to its absolute limit by their European commitments, should the club’s fans be worrying about their slow start?
Living up to the standards set during last season’s fantastic fifth-placed league finish was always going to be an impossible task, and there’s a certain sense of inevitability about their struggles so far this campaign. Nevertheless, just why have they been incapable of shaking off the inertia which has hung over the club like a cloud since the season began?
Injuries have certainly played their part and when you have a small squad, by top six standards anyway, every absence is going to be keenly felt, which is what makes the news that influential midfielder Yohan Cabaye is going to have groin surgery all the more galling.
Aside from Cabaye, though, Steven Taylor missed a month out with a calf strain, Jonas Gutierrez doesn’t look completely fully fit after carrying a niggling knee complaint for some time, while both James Perch and Gabriel Obertan have hobbled off in recent games and Tim Krul also missed a couple, so right away the core group which carried the side last year has been disassembled. Add into the mix Cheick Tiote’s three-game suspension after a red card picked up against Sunderland in the Tyne-Wear derby and the side becomes unsettled even further just at a time when stability is pivotal.
Of course, this isn’t to mention the fact that Sammy Ameobi, Dan Gosling, Ryan Taylor and Haris Vuckic have all had spells on the sidelines. It’s not even as if the support cast are really in a position to step up all of the time due to injury problems of their own, and while injuries are part and parcel of the game, something which every side has to contend with, the Magpies have certainly had a poor run of fortune in that respect right out of the gate.
Injuries are a by-product of playing more games and while Newcastle have done well in the Europa League so far, making the most of a somewhat straightforward group with only Bordeaux capable of causing them serious problems, that they’ve accrued eight points from four games, all while rotating their squad and blooding in several youngsters is worthy of admiration.
However, while playing on the continental stage may please the supporters, it has left the players fatigued for their league encounters and they’ve taken just seven points from the six games which have directly followed games in Europe. In that regard, they look to be struggling in a similar way that Stoke did last season and there’s no denying that it has had an affect on their recent domestic form, with Pardew being handed less and less time to prepare his charges than before.
Pardew told reporters this week of the difficulties the juggling act conjures up: “It’s difficult. We go to Southampton at the weekend and they will have a day off and two training days leading into it. For us it’s a working day, a game, a recovery day, then Southampton. We’ve lost a little bit of rhythm because we have not been able to do the work on the training ground because of games. I think that in the Premier League we play a heavier schedule than most European leagues and for Premier League teams it is difficult in this competition. I do feel that it needs to be looked at a little bit. You only have to look at the other two English clubs in the competition. We’re all having similar seasons and they are stronger than us financially. It just goes to show that it does make a big impact on your league situation.”
There’s also the fact that strikers Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba don’t really seem to be a good fit together, making the shift away from last term’s successful 4-3-3 formation to a 4-4-2 one to accommodate the latter due to his agent’s whinging in the press, something of a failed experiment.
It’s seemingly written into their contracts that only one of them can be in decent form at once and the team have scored just 13 league goals in their 12 games to date, the seventh-worst tally in the league and failed to trouble the scorers in a quarter of their games, so there’s clearly a deeper-lying problem that needs addressing and soon.
It’s clear that even with the superb Hatem Ben Arfa floating around behind them and drifting off the flank, that they can at times lack width and penetration out wide, but in an attempt to appease everybody, Pardew has only succeeded in dismantling the very system that made them successful in the first place.
The squad is vulnerable in certain key areas, which is what makes their failure to invest in the summer even more unforgivable, particularly when they were presented with the opportunity to really push on. Sure, Vurnon Anita looks a tidy enough player and his versatility is an added bonus, but each of the first-team starters knows that there’s no real pressure on their places and that can hardly help foster a sustainable winning mentality.
An argument could certainly be made that a handful of the key performers from last season – Tiote, Cisse and Cabaye – all of which have not been at their best so far, may have had their heads turned by ongoing speculation about their futures and moves to bigger clubs which have since failed to materialise.
They signed just four players in the summer and only Anita has made any sort of impact on the starting eleven – Romain Amalfitano has yet to make a first league start, despite the injuries and added fixtures in Europe necessitating rotation, and at 23 years of age, you’d like to think that he’d be ready by now, while Curtis Good and Gael Bigirimana are both considered prospects for the future.
The scouting network established by Graham Carr was heralded as a model to follow last term, but it’s simply not a sustainable one as soon as you start to enjoy any sort of success and clubs on the continent begin to realise what you’re doing and the result is that they drive their prices up for players, which is exactly what happened to Newcastle in the summer, where they bargained themselves into a standstill on both Mathieu Debuchy and Douglas.
Failing to be held to ransom was deemed a positive approach at the time, but it is seriously costing them now and they look ill-equipped to compete on multiple fronts at once. You have to question the wisdom of forsaking such a great chance to make a mark on the top four like they have, particularly with so many sides in transition at the moment, just over a few million quid here and there when the obvious benefits of estbablishing yourselves as one of the elite are so plentiful.
There are plenty of mitigating factors as to why Newcastle have started the season in inconsistent form – lack of investment in the summer, poor performances from key players, fatigue and injuries have all played a part – yet despite all of this, they are still just nine points off fourth place in the league, so it is far from a lost cause just yet, but they must improve and fast, starting with a win away on Sunday at a struggling Southampton side.