The similarities are alarming. Both players were given a hero’s welcome to St. James’ Park and arrived for significant transfer fees at times when Newcastle desperately needed a striker.
Initially they delivered and scored big goals in crucial games. Michael Owen notched winning goals in the Tyne-Wear derby, a brace in a 2-0 victory at St James’ in April 2008 giving Paul McShane a nightmare of an afternoon.
Papiss Cisse turned games on their head in the last season, in the club’s European pursuit, which peaked with his two wonder strikes at Stamford Bridge again in a 2-0 victory. On the flip side though, they both have now had spells of looking disinterested, injury and struggled to have an influence when it has really mattered for the team. The difference is though, Cisse has the chance and capability to turn around his misfortune on Tyneside.
Before we get carried away with this comparison, even if fans of Owen never want to admit it, he was in steady decline from the moment he left Anfield. When he returned to the Premier League, the expectation that the player should succeed was slightly misguided. When Papiss Cisse arrived he was an unknown quantity, known for his ability to score goals. He managed to earn himself a reputation for being one of the Premier League’s finest finishers in just half a season.
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While this season, Cisse looks like he would struggle to finish his dinner let alone a ball in the 6 yard box, it is not all his fault. As Newcastle put in one of their weakest displays yet at Southampton, my friend James was happy to vent his spleen at Cisse bewildered at the striker standing around with his hands on his hips waiting for a miracle chance to come to his feet. This is certainly an issue as this negative body language won’t warm him to the supporters, or help him regain his confidence but his team didn’t exactly help him.
I am not a great lover of the blanket argument which is used to defend so many mediocre strikers of ‘his midfield isn’t giving him the service’, but if Cisse were to argue this he would have a point. The centre of the park at Newcastle has been lacklustre this season, they fail to produce any creativity or incision to cut open defences with a killer pass on the floor, Hatem Ben Arfa aside, nor the poise to keep the ball and pass it around. I remember at under 13 level doing a training match with the conditions that no goal counted if 6 passes weren’t completed before you scored, maybe extending that to 10 passes in training sessions at Darsley Park wouldn’t go amiss.
Newcastle United so far this season play statistically the most long balls in the Premier League and while they finished 5th in these standings last season, the willingness for them to hoof it long is embarrassing. This does not suit the natural game of Cisse or Ba, at St Mary’s watching Tim Krul booting goal kicks out to Cisse on the left wing for him to flick it onto to the sum total of nobody was infuriating for the fans. Also watching Gutierrez trying to whip a low 30 yard past around the defence to Cisse is both ambitious and useless too. If Cisse is to flourish he needs to be given the ball to his feet and along the floor, dealing with neat intricate short passes, and opportunities to shoot in goalscoring positions with the ball on the deck.
There needs to be a greater understanding of the strengths of the Senegalese international, which is that he is a poacher, a finisher who can snatch at a ball in one swipe and watch the ball rustle the back of the net. He is an opportunist who is looking for a chance to unleash his deadly left foot. It is clear that the player is capable of scoring goals but Newcastle United’s offensive play has to suit to his strengths if he is to succeed. Again don’t count this as a full defence of Cisse, because I think here we find a striker who is extremely limited in what he can do.
His aerial qualities will never strike fear into opposition defences when they see a cross coming in or have to deal with set pieces. Cisse’s pace is also questionable, with him having just about enough to get by; he dare not lose a yard or two. I don’t think this was lost upon the big clubs in Europe. It was barely a coincidence that there was hardly a whisper of any interest in the forward, when a player who scores 13 goals in 14 appearances would normally be the subject of all the newspaper gossip columns.
The comparison with Michael Owen again here becomes relevant with the loss of pace being one of the pivotal reasons for his downfall, but more importantly his finishing. A crucial thing Owen lost was the confidence to put a chance away. In April 2009 he had a glaringly obvious chance to bury Portsmouth with a one-on-one opportunity, late on in the game, and move Newcastle towards safety, and he meekly punted the ball into David James’ hands. Papiss Cisse has not had such a turning point yet, and while I am not amused at gestures such as laughing at missing a penalty as he did against Norwich, he needs to be given a chance.
If Newcastle plays to his strengths, I believe the talk of Ba and Cisse not being able to accommodate each other is nonsense. Ba has additional attributes to those Cisse has in that he can hold up the ball and has heading ability. This could mean Newcastle have a strike pairing that have the potential to wreak havoc and both score lots of goals.
However, they need to be provided service along the floor if they are able to flourish. If Cisse starts getting presented chances on the floor and missing them on a regular basis, then maybe we can start worrying that there is a Michael Owen in disguise on Tyneside.