Top-flight English football has just finished a crazy week, with a mid-week match day squeezed in presumably to make room for FA Cup ties and this summer’s World Cup. Some teams have done blazingly well, like Liverpool who scored nine goals in just two matches. Other clubs are in genuine, if inflated, crisis. This would be Manchester United and perhaps a schizophrenic Chelsea.
And then there is the enigma that is Newcastle United. Are they the club that has won five of their last six games, including victories against Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester United? Or are they the overly cautious side that conceded a bizarre 3-0 loss to Swansea mid-week? The Telegraph’s Luke Edwards has written how Alan Pardew has grown a rose out of a slag heap. Edwards contends that Pardew has navigated crisis after crisis since the summer: the re-appointment of the megalomaniacal-delusional Joe Kinnear, the excess of hastily-signed French players in the January transfer window, the reconciliation with want-away Yohan Cabaye, the loan signing of Loïc Remy.
The Kinnear thing is just bizarre, but it’s a typical Mike Ashley move, so no surprises there. As for the French players, they are indeed clicking and, as Edwards hypothesizes, they are probably jockeying for a spot on Didier Deschamps’ squad in Brazil (although presumably only Cabaye, Remy and Mathieu Debuchy will be going in any case). Cabaye has definitely rediscovered his mojo: just watch his cheeky 10th minute goal attempt from just past the half-way line against Swansea, or his textbook goal against Manchester United. Loïc Remy? He “only” has eight league goals this season. That’s as many as Wayne Rooney and more than Robin Van Persie, good enough for fourth in the league.
But if I was a Newcastle fan, I’d be worried about tactics. Alan Pardew says that the Magpies can win with different styles. But Saturday’s match was the first time this season that Newcastle has won playing with a solitary striker, and that win came against a club that is in complete disarray. The matches against Chelsea, Spurs, Norwich and West Brom all featured Remy partnered with Ameobi (although the goals in the Chelsea game came after Ameobi was subbed off for Gouffran). The pair also started against Swansea, but then Ameobi was subbed off following the Debuchy own-goal, with Obertan (ugh) coming on, and Remy moving into a wide position. That meant Pardew was switching from the oh-so-British 4-4-2 to the 4-5-1 that he had previously favoured in away games, with little success.
Why would Pardew do this? Was he giving up the game, even though there was still more than 20 minutes left to play? Or did he think that this would cauterize the bleeding? (It didn’t). It must have been a bit of a letdown for the Geordie faithful, considering that their side barely pressured Swansea and had trouble hanging onto the ball. The move to the classic “away formation” hasn’t exactly been frustrating for opposing sides either: Newcastle has the fourth-worst away defense record in the league.
By this time next month, Alan Pardew will be the third-longest serving NUFC manager in the 3-point-win era, dating all the way back to the club’s promotion in 1984. He has certainly skippered the most top-flight matches in the 10 years since Sir Bobby Robson was in charge. In hindsight, the eight-year contract that Mike Ashley gave to Pardew looks less like a flashy publicity stunt, and more like a way to keep the club stable and growing. This is admirable, but a big club with a massive local fan base needs trophies. Arsenal fans may think they have it tough, but try going 60 years without a major honour.
During the summer, I was very close to laying money on Newcastle to go down. Their goal difference in the previous season was atrocious and the club was a cauldron of controversy. But the manager seems to have ridden this out. If Pardew can remain brave and can keep picking a team that is attack-minded and applies pressure, and if he can keep his side together for the rest of the season, the Geordies might be a surprise in a Premier League season already full of them. But if this very English manager decides to revert to very English tactics, things will start to get tough. Then Newcastle fans will be strapping themselves in for a ride towards the end of the season.