I managed to get to SJP last month when I was back in the north east for December and was looking forward to the match against Aston Villa. After the two unlikely victories against Spurs and Liverpool I was elated when Coloccini finished at the far post after a half hour of relentless pressure.
As the fans started singing “You’re going down with the Mackems” at the Villa fabs, I felt that maybe that the corner had been turned and we could finally get down to the serious business of securing survival and setting the foundations for a rosier future.
But when Jordan Ayew volleyed in the spectacular equalizer, a slight queasiness settled in my stomach that perhaps my joy had been shortlived.
And so it was with the Everton and West Brom games, when a complete lack of creativity and scoring menace made clear that had Newcastle been playing at their classic best then they would have finished off Aston Villa in that first thirty minutes.
With a perhaps unlucky failure to win at Arsenal bringing out the usual unfounded positivity from Steve McClaren, we enter the January transfer window in the relegation zone and with a deep-seated pessimism from the fans evident everywhere.
Taking a cursory look at the data from the four matches demonstrates what must have been evident to all fans, which is that whatever plan McClaren seems to have seems woefully inadequate for the task at hand.
In a relegation struggle, if you’re going to play it tight and attack on the break, then you have to have the capacity to get the ball downfield quickly to creative strikers, the ‘just four touches to score a goal’ approach. If Sunderland are going to stay up season, then my money would be on them taking this approach.
It’s the heart of Sam Allerdyce’s managerial style that the Mackems must be hoping will prove their salvation but anathema to Newcastle fans accustomed to sexy football. And McClaren’s indeed eschewed the long-ball game and instead seems to be blindly committed to pushing everything down the right.
This seems to reflect a complete absence of options elsewhere rather than reflecting the obvious fact that when they try, Janmaat and Sissoko are definitely Premier League footballers of a superior sort. Oppositions have soon wised up, with Everton placing two on Sissoko and effectively neutering any creative threat he posted.
Microblogger @nufctactics has highlighted a complete absence of any kind of central midfield capable of taking the ball from the centre halves and creating chances by linking with the strikers.
Of late, Tioté has looked the most capable with both Anita and Colback regularly stuttering, leaving defence and forwards out of position, adding to Newcastle’s general malaise.
Question marks have also to be placed next to the left side, with Dummett’s progress remaining slow, and Wijnaldum woefully out of position as a left-sided midfielder.
Wijnaldum looks at his strongest when allowed a more central role, and given good defensive midfield, clearly offers a threat that can tie down opposition defenders allowing our strikers more time for the finish.
There seems to be the heart of a team that can dodge relegation, but swift action is necessary if we are to avoid the chop. With next season seeing the start of the (even more) mega-bucks of the new Sky contract, going down might see us facing a prolonged spell outside the top flight: our survival plan for 2016 needs to include three essential items.
Firstly, McClaren needs to come up with a set of tactics that will give the team flexibility, options and ensure decent service for the strikers. Arsenal showed that he’s prepared to adapt slightly to the opposition but the team needs to be ready to go forward in the centre or either flank without letting worrying defensive holes open up.
Secondly, McClaren needs to identify a stable squad that he wants playing every week as the foundation for survival. Although injuries have forced his hand, it’s still not clear what his preferred midfield or forward lines are, or even his vision for these elements.
Are Mbabu, De Jong and Thauvin going to feature in his plans in anything more than bit roles?
McClaren needs to answer this question quickly, because the third element is that we urgently need reinforcements to fill the evident quality gaps in the current side. At this point Ashley needs to forget resale value and focus on the lost millions that relegation will bring, choosing proven Premier League quality over cheap foreign allure.
If Thauvin is going to be brought back, then we should invest in defensive midfielders and a genuine world-class forward to build around Sissoko & Wijnaldum. If Mbabu doesn’t feature in the manager’s plans, then we need a quality left back in the Enrique or Santon mould to plug the leaky back line and create forward pressure. If McClaren wants to give De Jong a chance, then he needs to find an out-and-out striker to give the Dutchman more space to find his rhythm.
Whatever the choices to be made now, survival involves tens of millions of pounds without necessarily building foundations for future success.
Ashley may choose not to open his wallet, and hope a few warm words will cut it, but without a radical transformation across the club, this might be the year the owners’ cheapskate chickens finally come home to roost.
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