How low can we go? As one of those typical Newcastle fans with ridiculously high expectations (you know, the sort who makes life oh so difficult for the players and manager/coach/patsy), I still cling to the hope that we will be a Premier League team next season.
If the latest Chronicle poll is to be believed, I’m outnumbered about five to one by those who reckon we are doomed.
But let’s be positive for a few minutes, in the style of Steve McClaren, who finds reasons to be optimistic after the most depressing Christmas for many a long year.
Perhaps our current head coach has no other option. His CV is littered with failures at home and abroad. How many prospective employers would take a punt on him if his tenure at St James Park ended ignominiously, regardless of whether he was clutching an umbrella? There’s no prospect of shelter from the storm unless, to use a once-trendy phrase, he thinks outside the box.
After the widely expected defeat at the Hawthorns (widely expected because of the overwhelming evidence of our previous 18 Premier League matches under McClaren) we now have the wretched distinction of being the most negative team in the top 20.
Even West Brom, whose odious manager takes pride in stopping opponents rather than encouraging his team to play watchable football, have tried to score more often than our sorry lot.
Our total of shots and headers is 171, a distinctly mean average of exactly nine a game. Remember, that’s the overall total; the number on target is far fewer, while we have hit the net a mere 19 times. The Norwich match looks more of a freak with each passing week; we had six attempts, all on target, none saved. By May that 6-2 could be worth upwards of £100m if our survival depends on goal difference.
So why be positive? Well, talk is cheap, but if our much-criticised captain is more than a curly-haired figurehead there might just be a change of tack to steer us away from the relegation rocks. Fabricio Coloccini’s comments after our latest defeat certainly made more sense than those emanating from the Grinning Gurner.
Colo hit the nail on the head with this:
“You cannot defend for 95 minutes, the opposition are always going to have a chance that way.”
Contrast that with the pathetic bleatings of McClaren, who blamed the referee, bad luck and, disgracefully, his stand-in goalkeeper. West Brom were so much on top, the only surprise was their inability to score in the first 78 minutes. Yes, we hit the bar. Yes, we should have had a penalty. Did McClaren mention West Brom also hit the bar? Or Colo’s goal-line clearance in the second minute? Or Karl Darlow’s kung-fu kick towards Victor Anichebe that could have yielded a penalty and/or a red card? No; thought not.
Since the debacle at Selhurst Park, most United players have done their best, most of the time, to drag themselves clear of the mess caused by their sleepwalking start to the season. In general terms the effort, the application, the determination are no longer lacking. What holds them back, literally and figuratively, is the blinkered approach (to call it strategy would be extremely flattering) of McClaren.
Match after match he fields two deep-lying central midfielders to supplement an admittedly suspect back four. This hands the initiative to any opponent with a modicum of attacking ambition. Jack Colback and Vurnon Anita rarely burst forward. Rival midfielders can attack almost fearlessly, knowing they are unlikely to be punished if they lose possession. Before they outplayed us, West Brom had managed even fewer attempts to score than our meagre tally. No longer.
They had 22 efforts, seven more than in any previous game this season and equating to 12% of their total so far. That’s one every four or five minutes. West Brom would have mustered more than 400 this season if all their other opponents had been as accommodating as Newcastle. We made them look like world-beaters.
Big Fat Sham infuriated me with his negative “philosophy” and McClaren is doing his damnedest to outdo the ‘orrible Allardyce.
Back to Colo, who stated the obvious with this:
“There are so many things we need to improve.”
Not half! Only the mackems have conceded more than us.
Change is essential. Ashley will not sack his latest whipping boy. Neither is he expected to buy the quality of player who would greatly improve the team. That leaves a third option: send out the team to play in a more expansive, attacking style. McClaren needs to acknowledge he has been barking up the wrong tree, shooting in the dark too long, putting round pegs in square holes.
We will never survive — that has to be the height of our ambition as a new year beckons — by sitting back. Ashley should look to his favourite team for guidance. Tottenham, against whom we have recorded one of only four wins, mainly thanks to a man-of-the-match display by our keeper, have conceded fewer goals than any other Premier League team. For the first time in decades they seem capable of winning the title. Do they soak up pressure and try to hit on the break?
Those glory hunters at Old Trafford are on the right track with their chant of ‘attack, attack, attack’. If the supremely arrogant LVG can respond to criticism, as he seemed to against Chelski, surely our equivalent can do the same, even though the initials WTF would be more apt in his case.
By the middle of May we will know if there are three teams even worse than us. The long-term prognosis is more doom and gloom while Ashley remains in charge but in the short term there is reason to believe we can stay in the ball park with the big hitters, even though success seems as distant as the North Star.
We have the players to escape the drop. Now is the time to let them play.
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