Newcastle 7 years into Mike Ashley 5 year plan for Champions League qualification
So Newcastle United headed to North London for the first of two encounters in five days with both clubs reported to be carrying a high number of injuries. The two longest serving Premier League managers head to head.
Statistics can often provide patterns or sometimes a fog, sometimes highlight coincidences and sometimes mean nothing. Superficially, scoreline apart, Arsenal v Newcastle appeared to be a close game. Both sides entered the fray with similar records. Both recorded 4 shots on target. Possession was roughly similar with 52% v 48%.
Arsene Wenger has of course qualified for the Champions league in each of the last 18 seasons, Newcastle have not done so since Sir Bobby Robson in 2003, despite being 7 years into Mike Ashley’s 5 year plan to qualify.
On the match itself, Arsenal started briskly, closing down high up the field. Tiote seemed to be a particular target for the closing, his short passes being cut off until eventually Arsenal scored the first. The natural direction of pass became backwards. Just before half time there was a moment where he was allowed too much time, appearing isolated and unsure. After the game Wenger told us that Newcastle are slow starters, his players being allowed to pick up the pace.
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Team selection caused some mumblings among the away support and social media. Williamson was recalled to the centre of defence, having been on the winning side in only 1 of his 11 starts so far this season. In the absence of suspended Sissoko, Gouffran was recalled, winner in 2 of his 12 starts. Was he to take the central role as he did in the team that drew at Burnley? All would be revealed.
Young Jak Alnwick made his full debut. It proved to be a baptism of fire. He did not seem as authoritative and composed as he did against Chelsea. That having been said, the quality of the opposition strikes left all but the most accomplished keepers little chance.
As the match evolved, goalkeeper aside, the team came increasingly close to resembling what Pardew might have considered his best at the start of the season. Obviously Tiote was in, Cabella coming on to replace Sammy, who had started in the middle and when moving wide, found himself increasingly isolated. When Riviere came on for the misfiring Cisse, the look of the team that failed to win in the first 7 games of the Premier League season was as close as it could be under the circumstances.
Questions will be asked as to whether the shape of the team hints at the more negative comments directed at Pardew. Is the arrogance that his former player, Don Hutchinson, hinted at in the North East media a trait which will not go away? Was this match a lesson in the need to work on attack more than the reputed 80% defensive training sessions.
A week of contrasts and contradictions has marked Pardew’s 4th anniversary in Newcastle. The highs have been very high, the first team to beat Chelsea in any competition since the season began. The lows are characterised by this, the 23rd defeat by 3 or more goals in those 4 years. The next game will potentially give him a League Cup semi-final, having won only 1 FA Cup match in 4 campaigns, that being courtesy of players who have been banished out on loan, Ben Arfa and Jonas.
There are learning opportunities from Saturday, not just for Pardew but for the man who employed him. The defensive tactics have already been mentioned while plan B, if it exists, having generally proved ineffective with a paucity of wins after going behind. Before the match we were told that his team can be “more dangerous without the ball.” Perhaps, but they will not score, unless Gillingham can be elevated to the Premier League.
Arsenal have managed to invest in quality. Despite the onerous costs of developing a new stadium, they have made sure that their manager has quality on the field of play, in depth too. Despite some defensive shortcomings, the motivation to attack has led to consistent top 4 success. Newcastle United are currently the most profitable club in the Premier League, acting as a feeder club to generate transfer profit but failing to invest the TV bonus tens of millions. Arsenal have the best of both worlds.
At the same time, Wenger has managed to develop British talent; Ramsey, Walcott, Gibbs, Wilshere and a host of others. The hierarchy at St James have allowed a few local lads into the squad but contracts for others are still in abeyance.
Lessons aside, the picture need not be negative. Yes, it might be argued that there has been an over-reliance on some key players, alleged Arsenal transfer target – the powerhouse Sissoko being a big miss when played in his correct position. However, the performance of Colback in a more creative role was a huge plus. The technique of Ayoze in scoring our consolation was magnificent.
There is an immediate chance to show that these lessons can be learned from. The North London hosts on Wednesday are ripe for the picking as Pochettino tries to integrate a team of flair players into a cohesive unit after managerial upheaval last season. The Mackems follow, after 3 defeats against them in as many games. There are records to be quashed or broken.
With the forthcoming cup matches over the next few weeks, with a January transfer window open and cash to burn, with contracts up for grabs, Ashley and Pardew can show some ambition, they can show some commitment.
In the space of little over a month, we will know whether the 5 year plan was the same sort of lie as those identified by the Keegan tribunal. Are the hierarchy as ambitious as supporters or are they only ambitious for profit and their percentages? All will be revealed but good luck to the lads for Wednesday. Let’s also hope that the manager is keen to learn rather than persist in reverting to mediocre type.
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