With the 2012-13 English Premier League season on the horizon, Tezini’s crew of soccer experts is here to get you ready for all the cracking finishes, devilish challenges and unforgettable drama. Over the next two weeks, we’ll give each club its proper due in a free-flowing roundtable discussion. We continue with Newcastle United.
AJ: Don’t pinch me. I don’t wish to wake from this dream. Two years after Newcastle United was relegated, my beloved black and whites finished fifth — FIFTH! — in the Premier League. Say what you will about Chelsea flipping the script in May’s Champions League final, no club in England has changed their own narrative as dramatically as Newcastle over the past year-plus. They’ve gone from bumbling, bloated flops, personified by controversial owner Mike Ashley, to shrewd dealers in the business of football. They sold Andy Carroll at the height of his form for £35 million and turned that transfer fee into a financially leaner, infinitely more talented side. Hatem Ben Arfa, Demba Ba, Papiss Cisse, Yohan Cabaye, Davide Santon and Sylvain Marveaux have been added since (and with money left over). It’s a marvel, not even so much because they were successful with this sort of business model, but because they were able to be successful so quickly.
I’m not sure where to begin, and, frankly, I’m uncomfortable looking forward, because looking backward is, to be trite, magical. You’d have to be willfully blind to not see that this side got their breaks last year, that the squad is still thin especially with European football in the offing, that they’ve actually sold more than they’ve bought this summer, failing, at least so far, to reel in one senior player after chasing Mathieu Debuchy to the ends of the Earth and flirting with other targets from weaker European leagues (most notably Vurnon Anita and Douglas). I don’t think Newcastle is going to tumble down the standings too far, but things are going to be tougher this season for a number of reasons, and I think the only way to combat that is by adding depth — something they haven’t done as of yet.
Look forward we must, though. Reality awaits the Toon with a doozy start to the season (Tottenham at St. James Park and Chelsea at Stamford Bridge sandwiched around a two-leg Europa League playoff). Will that set the tone for their season? Or is Newcastle not going away?
I continue to be flummoxed by Newcastle, personally. Once assumes the tide of good fortune won’t quite be at their backs this season (like being tied for the league in opponents’ own goals committed), and they had an outsized number of scoring chances for the fact that only 26 percent of their games were spent in the opponent’s final third (good for second-worst in the league). They also were fairly middling in possession, and aren’t a wildly great passing team, though the latter is considerably better when Cheick Tiote and Hatem Ben Arfa are healthy and in the side.
But if Newcastle isn’t a testament to the importance of good finishing and good goalkeeping, I don’t know what is. Tim Krul was outrageously good last season — he put on an absolute clinic against Manchester United — and on the opposite end there’s an argument to be made that Newcastle may be even better up top with a full season from Papiss Demba Cissé (say that 10 times fast), as well as if Demba Ba’s 14-match scoring drought to end the season doesn’t resurface (or more appropriately, stick around I guess) and Gabriel Obertan (a personal disappointment) can come through a bit more.
Sidenote: I’m convinced there’s an eight-year-old out there named Demba Ameobi who is destined to play for Toon at some point.
I’m curious to see if Newcastle has a bit of Stoke syndrome this year, which you’ve touched on AJ. European football is obviously most trying on the least-deep sides, so I’m interested to see how Alan Pardew handles the domestic cups for example. There’s much more money to be made in deep runs through Europe, as well as obviously qualifying for Europe through league play (though of course, one can make an unlikelier run via cup play as well I suppose), that I wouldn’t be surprised to see them save their collective energy accordingly. For a team whose owner is notorious for his miserliness — even if he’s made shrewd decisions over the past two or three years — this carries a decent amount of importance methinks.
I’ll leave it to you AJ to discuss what made this team so tactically good last season (beyond the noses for goal and Krul’s hands), particularly since you watched nearly triple the Newcastle games than I did. Individually, Yohan Cabaye was their engine in so many ways last season, and I have no reason to believe that won’t be the case again. The strikers are good, the goalkeeper is good, the spine is good. If there is a real weakness in this side, what is it outside of depth? The back line? Is a relying on the continued renaissance of rich man’s-David Luiz Fabricio Coloccini and the health of Steven Taylor a comfortable proposition?
AJ: I think there are a couple of factors that explain the incongruity of Newcastle’s underlying statistics and their position in the table.
- First, as you mentioned, you just can’t understate the importance of quality strikers. Ba and Cisse both went on unreal runs of goalscoring form last season. They are both quality strikers and while I don’t think either will replicate their tremendous half-seasons in 2012-13, I don’t think there’s any reason, other than a Ba injury, that their general excellence won’t continue. I hesitate to call them a striking duo because, actually, they never really played up top together last season; Pardew shifted Ba out to the wing to accomodate both Cisse and Ben Arfa’s return to form and fitness. Let’s just call them a pair of strikers. Anyway, I don’t think you can find a better pair of strikers in the Premier League right now, outside of the city of Manchester.
- Second, this was truly a tale of two (or maybe even three) seasons. You can probably say that of many clubs, good and bad. But as a mildly obsessed observer, it strikes me that they rode a rather sizable wave of good fortune in the first part of the season, a run that culminated in a home loss to Chelsea in which Steven Taylor was lost for the season. That crashing wave was followed by a real dip in form. There were bad losses away to Norwich and Fulham and at one point they had to play James Perch and Danny Simpson in the middle of their backline because both Taylor and his replacement Mike Williamson were out. And then Cisse arrived AND Ben Arfa asserted himself. From that point on, Pardew played a to-that-point-unfamiliar 4-3-3 counterattacking formation with Ba, Cisse and Ben Arfa across the top that was utterly devastating. I think Newcastle was the real deal from about January on, or at least pretty close to it.
What does all that mean? Well, to me it means that they better hope that Ben Arfa — who was just as influential as Cisse in the run-in — maintains his form now that he’s fully recovered from the broken leg he suffered in Fall 2010. It means that they need depth on their backline somewhere, because it’s folly to believe two out of Coloccini, Williamson and Taylor will stay healthy all season long. And, mostly, it means that they need to keep adding to the mix in general. Newcastle has a number of players for whom there is no real reliable replacement at present — Cabaye, Tiote, Ba, Cisse, Ben Arfa. They actually have a number of serviceable reserves — Ryan Taylor and Perch spring to mind — but their flair players, the ones that vaulted them to where they got last season are too few in number, especially with the Europa League calling.
Pardew has said repeatedly in the preseason that the Premiership will be the primary concern all season this year, which I think you can read as meaning that they’ll be punting the domestic cups and maybe even the Europa League to a certain extent. That’s fine with me, I suppose, and I want to see what some of their under-the-radar youngsters can do (Haris Vuckic, Mehdi Abeid, Romain Amalfitano, Gael Bigirimana, Curtis Good), but I’d feel a lot better about things if they’d go out and purchase a little more experienced depth. To their credit, they seem to be trying, and in some cases, I think they might already be a victim of their own success in the transfer market. (You think uncovering Cabaye’s release clause might have colored their negotiations with Lille over Debuchy a little?)
Mark: Your point about there being no reliable replacement for Tiote, Cabaye et al. is probably the most concerning, not least of all because we just don’t know if these players can keep up their form from last season or, in the case of Cisse, whether we can project half-a-season’s brilliance onto a full, more grueling campaign.
We haven’t really made any hard predictions in these things, but I’m going to slot Newcastle into eighth place. It just seems like the right spot for them this season, given everything we’ve mentioned. I don’t see this team making a leap forward up the table, much as it would please me to see your gorgeous smile, AJ, and I also tend to think that some of these guys are going to regress to the mean a little bit — particularly on the back line. There’s enough young talent to prove me utterly wrong on this, and obviously we can all envision a scenario in which Liverpool, Tottenham, Everton and even Chelsea have their unknowns go just as awry. Plus given Newcastle’s meteoric rise over a two-year span, shouldn’t we prepare ourselves for another middling club to come out of nowhere and do the same?
AJ: I can’t see them falling behind either Everton and Liverpool, barring a rash of injuries, because they have more significantly more quality up front than both those teams, but, hey, the injuries thing could happen. I’m not sure I see the next Newcastle anywhere, because I don’t see second-tier teams picking up players like Ba, Cisse and Cabaye, who actually were pretty well known quantities when they arrived on Tyneside. Eighth is the basement for this team, and while you’re right to expect some regression from key players, I think we should also anticipate the positive impact of having Ba and Cisse in more settled roles for a full campaign and, hopefully, seeing more of Steven Taylor and, especially, Sylvain Marveaux, who has had a great preseason after missing most of 2011-12 due to injury.
Mostly, though, we’re circling around something, and so I’ll just be direct. I think Newcastle is one of the teams that, with a few (more) shrewd buys, can do the most for itself between now and when the transfer window shuts. The backline and midfield needs improvement, and so they’ve chased Mathieu Debuchy and Vurnon Anita, so far to no avail. Ba and Cisse are teriffic, but they could both miss time due to the African Cup of Nations in January, and so they’ve kicked the tires on Andy Carroll, Loic Remy, Luuk de Jong and others, again to no avail. The arrival of Debuchy, Anita and another striker to complement Ba and Cisse would totally change the story here, and I think Toon fans like myself could begin to see fifth or sixth again as not just a possibility, but a probability. That’s a long way of saying the ball is squarely in Mike Ashley’s court once more, and though I’m writing that in a happier and more optimistic tone than in years past, I’m also prepared for the window to come and go with his job only partially complete; that’s part of the deal when you stick yourself within a set of financial limits and really stick to them, for the better or worse of the club on the pitch.
I also wanted to take one more moment to discuss Cisse. He’s probably not going to score a goal per game or thereabouts, as he did during his half-season with Newcastle, but what a gifted finisher he is. I spent some time watching video of his goals from last season — yes, I’m aware that YouTube clips can be deceptive — but he strikes me as someone who is dangerous because he can truly score in many, many different ways; he has speed and graft, but also a sublime first touch. His second goal against Chelsea (sorry, Mark) got all the headlines, but his finishes against Swansea, Aston Villa and his first goal against the Blues were impressive in a more subtle way. The regression is coming, I know, but I don’t think it’s going to be as rough as you might think.