Following our recent shellacking by Manchester City and our porous defending versus Norwich City, I began to wonder what made our defence so poor.
The departures of Pardew and Carver left me full of hope that displays where we threw in the towel and conceded 4 or 5, with a collective shrug of the shoulders, were in the past.
Then, of course, we entered the Etihad and looked competitive only to ship 5 in the second half – no different to previous results against Fulham (5-2 winning 1-0 at half time) and Spurs (0-0 HT, 5-0 FT) under Pardew.
In fact, since returning to the Premier League in 2010-11 we’ve lost at least 4 games a season by a margin of 3 goals or more; this peaked in the 2013-14 season, where we lost 9 of 38 games by 3 or more goals – nearly a quarter of all games! So what is exactly is the reason for our continued defensive slide since returning to the Premier League in 2010?
Our centre-back pairing for the first game of the 2010-11 season: Coloccini/Williamson….our centre-back pairing for the last game of last season: Coloccini/Williamson.
That’s five solid years of the same centre-back pairing interspersed with appearances by Steven Taylor and Mbiwa. Until this season we had, arguably, the oldest pairing of central defenders and if not that, then certainly the slowest.
Our team was a moderately solid top ten performer based on goal difference for the first two seasons after promotion; Coloccini was even named to the PFA team of the year in 2012 as we finished 5th. Then in 2012-13 we appeared to go off a cliff – conceding 68 goals; it can’t have helped that Coloccini turned 31 that season and Williamson was 29. Given the advancing age of our two defensive stalwarts things were unlikely to improve in terms of goal difference and goals conceded, as it proved in the following seasons; nevertheless, our defensive slide incorporates other factors.
Since 2010 we have only brought in eight defensive recruits, of which only four remain: Good, Haidara, Jaanmat and Mbemba. Two of these were bought in the last two summers, whilst the perennially injured Good may never prove to be good enough, and the jury is still out on Haidara.
Of the other four, Sol Campbell was a joke, Santon and Debuchy were sold on and Mbiwa, who couldn’t adapt to the Premier League, was sold on by Roma and is now struggling to get into the team at Lyon.
In addition to this, the all-round quality of our signings has been sub-par, whether misused or not – Gosling, Ben Arfa, Abeid, Marveaux, Obertan, Amalfitano, Bigirimana, Anita, Gouffran, even Sissoko, all have flattered to deceive and are either not with us or send a shiver down the spine when announced over the PA.
Our slide has seen a dollar walk out the door to be replaced with a dime, or in the case of Ba an I.O.U. It’s not quite asset stripping as we have, at times, invested in players, it’s just those players haven’t really worked out. Can you really swap out grafters like Ryan Taylor, Cabaye and Guitierrez for the likes of Sissoko, Anita, Gouffran and not expect to conceded more?
Gouffran could almost be regarded as a patient zero in this situation: nominally a striker and brought in from France for a knockdown price of £500,000, Gouffran has been used in the Guitierrez, midfield workhorse role. He’s gone from creating and scoring in Ligue 1 to being expected to run up and down the pitch, marking and tackling – I can’t imagine that’s how he saw his role when he came in.
The central midfield pairing of Cabaye and Tiote have been replaced by Anita and Colback, even now with their increasing age I’d prefer the former. What does Anita do well? What does Colback do well? What do they bring to the team and who will replace them if they can’t play?
It was telling that against Man City our central midfield was Anita and Gouffran – a striker, who through the virtue of our purchase is now magically a utility man. You could also add that Sissoko is not a pure right winger, Dummett is better suited to centre-back and that we have a dearth of number 10s who don’t really fit in anywhere using our current formation.
This brings me to another issue that can’t be ignored regarding both our defensive frailties and the collapse at the end of last season – the psychology of the players.
Let’s set aside the argument that footballers are paid a lot of money and should do whatever is asked of them, privilege to be a sports star etc.
With Newcastle there appears to have been a change in mentality around January 2013; although it could perhaps be said to have occurred that summer when, despite finishing 5th, we only brought in the renowned world beater Vernon Anita.
As we all know, Newcastle were looking good for relegation in January and so we went out and bought Mbiwa, Gouffran, Sissoko and Debuchy – transfers ominously described as having been moved forward from the summer.
Significantly, we also sold Demba Ba to Chelsea and so lost one of the key contributors to our 5th place finish; of course we bought Gouffran to replace him…on the right wing. Our bacon is saved as we finish 16th, everyone at the club learns a really big lesson about what happens when you don’t invest in the squad, we buy a bunch of quality players and win the…wait a minute, something’s not quite right here – oh yeah, none of that stuff actually happened.
Instead, with the squad hoping that maybe their club does something to help them win – because I’m pretty sure that if you asked any footballer they’d say they like to win and that they don’t really like losing – we buy no one. Ok, full disclosure here, we did do some business – we brought Remy in on loan, a full two weeks before the season started. And Cisse went on strike, supposedly about the Wonga shirt; and Cabaye went on strike, and we finished 10th…whoops.
Yes, we finished 10th but look closely and you will see that following the sale of Cabaye in January and the purchase of no one to replace him we won a grand total of 4 games while getting beaten 3-0 four times and 4-0 three times. To put it another way, we won a quarter of our remaining games while getting humped in half of them, a worrying trend but hardly surprising.
Going back to the central point and, aside from being played out of position, imagine you were a member of our squad from Jan 2013: you stave off relegation but no one is brought in to improve the team, while Cabaye goes on strike to get a transfer and gets his way in January but no one is brought in to replace him.
If I was a member of that squad I’d be worried about being the last one left to turn out the lights, and I didn’t even mention having to deal with Joe Kinnear.
Given the above, is there any surprise that we are terrible defensively – ageing defenders, inadequate replacements, a shrinking squad, players played out of position; and a club that shows its players the way forward with a lack of ambition through investment. Telling them that if you show a complete disregard to both club and fans you’ll get a big money transfer to a Champions League side. No wonder Sissoko does his interviews, but someone really needs to tell him that he should go on strike.
From all this can it be said that our defensive capabilities will continue to be sub par throughout the season? We’ve invested in the summer and brought in a young defender in Mbemba who is the player I’m sure the club hoped Mbiwa would be.
Nevertheless, the squad is still too small and too many players aren’t suited to their roles, as we saw in the frailties against Norwich; whilst there are also whispers of discord behind the scenes.
McClaren has spoken of needing three transfer windows to turn the team around but it’s January that will be telling for both our defensive and league prospects. If we buy more players than we sell and in positions that need strengthening – left back, central midfield, centre-back – then we’re well on our way to a more positive future. Of course I’m sure fans of all clubs would say the same thing.
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