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Newcastle United – A dire 2012/13 and pushing on in 2013/14 (also on OutsideOfTheBoot.com)

May 29, 2013

What a difference a year makes. While a year is widely regarded as a “long time” in Football, few could’ve predicted that Newcastle United would be fighting against relegation going into the last weeks of the 2012/13 season just a year after almost clinching a Top 4 spot in 2011/12. From a possible return to the UEFA Champions League, not seen since the days of the late great Sir Bobby Robson, to an unwanted return to the Football League (nPower) Championship. Though the latter provided the last trophy that the Magpies have won, no one in the Toon Army ever wants to win that trophy again, due to what it would entail. Alan Pardew, the League Managers Association “2012 Manager Of The Year” and praised by many in 2011/12, now has sections of the St James’ Park faithful calling for his head. Looking at the current NUFC squad, as a Newcastle supporter, I believe that, with the right transfer ins & outs, next season will be one of brighter days than those seen and experienced this season.

2012 Summer transfer window – A big mistake:

When one looks at the player transfer movements made in the summer of 2012, it is of no surprise that Newcastle have struggled to live up to expectations, which were increased after a surprisingly stellar previous campaign. Vurnon Anita, signed from Dutch giants AFC Ajax, was the only senior player added to the squad, that is unless you’d count Gael Bigirimana as a “senior player”. On the other hand, 1st-teamers like Peter Lovenkrands, Danny Guthrie, Leon Best and Fraser Forster were allowed to leave. Just on paper alone, the squad had overall lost 3 senior players. While the departing quartet aren’t the most famous of names nor among the league’s best in their respective positions, they had contributed their fair share of good performances in 2011/12. In particular, Guthrie had more than proven his worth to be relied upon more often.

With the rigours of the UEFA Europa League added to the new season’s plans, Alan Pardew and other NUFC higher-ups – I’m looking at you, Derek Llambias – had failed to act on the need to boost the team’s squad depth, in both numbers and strength. I, and many other NUFC fans, could see that the 2012 summer window would be the deciding factor in whether we continue to push on, with our 2011/12 momentum under our belts, or fail to at least replicate our successes of 2011/12. Sadly, we have been proven right. It is shocking – well, not really, given the character of the current regime – that the club elected to stand still than push on for more. After all, the saying goes that “in Football, standing still means that you regress”.

Squad and season killer – Injuries, suspensions and the AFCON:

Injuries. Newcastle have been hit by injuries to key players at various points of this season. Core 1st-team players – Tim Krul, Fabricio Coloccini, Yohan Cabaye & Hatem Ben Arfa – have been struck by the injury bug, often more than one of the quartet on each occasion. The mercurial Ben Arfa, so often the spark in the 2011/12 campaign, has been out injured in crucial sections of this season. More than the others, Ben Arfa is more often than not the one and only “pure” matchwinner in the NUFC squad. His absence has been sorely felt. Bookings have also been a problem, with Mathieu Debuchy, Fabricio Coloccini, Cheick Tiote and Shola Ameobi each receiving 1 sending off. Yellow cards have been aplenty, with Yohan Cabaye, James Perch and Cheick Tiote the chief culprits at 11, 12 and 12 respectively. Furthermore, the 2013 African Cup Of Nations meant that midfield enforcer Tiote was not available to Pardew for a full month. Are you rebutting that with “Tiote had AFCON commitments in 2011/12 too. Nothing new.”? I disagree. With the injury woes and Europa League commitments the squad was stretched past its limit this season. In 2011/12, the key players were more-or-less fit throughout the year and, crucially, there was no European competition.

With regard to Cheick Tiote, whom the current squad has no like-for-like replacement, he seems to have lost his “edge” from the point of his sending off against Sunderland on 21st October 2012 onwards. That “edge”, which played a key part in his stellar first 2 seasons on Tyneside since signing in 2010, could be put down to his aggressive playing style and competitive nature. A possible reason for Tiote losing his “edge” is that his reputation then started to precede him and played against his favour in 50-50 decisions made by match officials. Speaking of Tiote’s reputation, the aforementioned sending off against Sunderland is, at the time of writing, the first and only red card in his Premier League career. Perhaps Tiote held back from putting his all, in terms of his aforementioned playing style and nature, to ensure that he would receive no more red cards. With his aforementioned “edge”, Tiote was an impressive midfield screen in front of the Newcastle defence in seasons 2010/11 and 2011/12. Many of the league’s bigger teams, such as Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, were touted as potential suitors for this combative and then highly-rated Ivorian midfield enforcer. The loss of the “real” Cheick Tiote has definitely been a blow to the team, both in terms of giving the Toon attackers the confidence to bomb forward with Tiote’s defensive presence further back and also for the defenders having a reliable shield ahead of them.

With the lack of sufficient squad depth, the youngsters – such as Mehdi Abeid, Sammy Ameobi, Shane Ferguson – were pushed into the 1st-team spotlight and expected to take to the 1st-team scene like a duck to water. Toon Manager Alan Pardew had expected the youngsters to be ready for 1st-team Football but he was ultimately proved wrong, save for 1 young central midfielder – Gael Bigirimana. The young Burundi confidently made the step up, featuring more times than he would’ve thought likely when he moved from Coventry City in the summer. Among other displays, his performance at Old Trafford(a pulsating 4-3 defeat for NUFC) was 1 of the highlights of his debut campaign on Tyneside. Bigirimana also scored his 1st Toon goal, a long-range screamer in a win over perennial relegation escapees Wigan Athletic. As aforementioned, most of the youngsters were not ready to step up and be counted, hence they were sent out on loan at the first most suitable opportunity. With injuries to key players and youngsters not being able to step up, there has been little squad depth to speak of.

Inconsistency & the UEFA Europa League:

With the players having to get used to the “Thursday, Sunday” fixture list(across all competitions), coupled with the lack of credible squad depth, consistency was a major problem. Brilliant displays almost always preceded dire performances. For example, a 3-0 home win over French outfit Bordeaux was swiftly followed by a crushing 0-3 home defeat to Manchester United. A 3-0 victory at home to Wigan Athletic preceded 2 defeats – 2-0 away to Bordeaux and 2-1 at Fulham’s Craven Cottage. A disappointing 2-1 away loss to Tottenham Hotspur came immediately after a breathtaking and inspirational 3-2 home win over reigning European Champions Chelsea. A vital last-gasp 1-0 win over Fulham preceded a humiliating 0-3 derby defeat to Sunderland. Need I go on?

January 2013 transfers – An unneeded departure & season saviours from France:

Demba Ba, with 13 goals in 20 league appearances before his January move to Stamford Bridge, was a sizeable blow to the club’s goalscoring ability. Papiss Cisse, a sensation in his first 6 months on Tyneside last year, had failed to carry his breathtaking 2011/12 form into this season. Cisse’s form has dropped drastically from 13 goals in 14 league appearances in 2011/12 to 8 in 35 this season. Granted, Cisse was often forced to play out wide, until Ba’s departure, when the latter was scoring goals regularly. However, the former Freiburg striker has failed to score regularly enough since being deployed in his favoured central position. Though Cisse has scored crucial winners on 3 occasions in the league this season, 2 of those being post-Demba Ba, there has been a distinct lack of regularity in his goalscoring form.

In NUFC Chief Scout Graham Carr, both the club and the fans have the faith in the club’s scouting network. After all, this is the man who brought us the likes of Yohan Cabaye and Cheick Tiote at bargain prices. For a net expenditure of £7.7m, 5 signings were made in the mid-season transfer window – French international right back Mathieu Debuchy, Montpellier’s Ligue 1-winning captain Mapou Yanga-M’Biwa, promising Nancy left back Massadio Haidara, French international central midfielder Moussa Sissoko & Bordeaux forward Yoan Gouffran. These signings should’ve been made in the summer prior. 1 bright spot has been French midfielder Sylvain Marveaux, who, after his injury woes since signing on a Bosman deal in 2011, has been like a new signing this season. The former Rennes midfielder has provided bursts of inspiration in attack, most prominently a sublime through pass – which took out 4 opposition players – for Cisse’s last-gasp winner against Stoke City. On the whole, the January 2013 French imports provided the much-needed freshness and impetus to fight on in the 2nd half of this season.

Top-flight status secured, now changes and decisiveness are needed:

Fast forward to the 14th of May 2013. A 2-1 win over already-relegated Queens Park Rangers this past weekend came at the perfect time, with results in other matches going our way and hence confirming our survival. With a fortuitous, albeit deserving(Jonas Gutierrez’s hard work at pressing the QPR defence), winner from Yoan Gouffran’s sidefooted finish into an open goal, a huge sense of relief was felt by Newcastle supporters worldwide. At Loftus Road, Ben Arfa showed flashes of his 2011/12 best, as well as much fight and desire to help ensure Premier League survival.

Enough about this season. Alan Pardew has to push his bosses – Derek Llambias and Mike Ashley – for summer transfers, and not wait to “see how the season goes” before making squad additions in January 2014. Even without the commitments and fatigue of European involvement, this squad needs to be strengthened or, at the very least, refreshed. Fresh faces in the dressing room is just what’s needed to give the squad a lift and a fresh impetus to push on next season and try to replicate the brilliant achievements of last season.

Overview:

First things first, while my aforementioned factors of injury woes and added Europa League commitments did play a fairly sizeable part in our lacklustre form this 2012/13 season, the brunt of the blame still lies with the lack of summer signings last year. The failure to add to the squad, in terms of both quality and depth, meant that we started the new season without solid foundations to build on. It was clear for all to see that qualification to the Europa League required at least 3-5 new signings, best done in time for these new players to be bedded in – both on and off the pitch as well as in their respective personal lives – during pre-season. If the club had made our recent January signings last summer, I believe that the team would have secured survival weeks ago and would instead now be looking to cement at least a spot in the top half of the 2012/13 league standings. It seems that while we didn’t learn from anything from Stoke City’s juggling of domestic and European commitments in 2011/12. Our failure has been a league rival’s gain, Swansea City have learnt from our inconsistent and disappointing season as Swansea Manager Michael Laudrup has stated that he’ll be looking to bring in up to 6 new players this coming summer, ahead of their 2013/14 Europa League commitments. We now need to learn from our mistakes this season and ensure that they don’t happen again when we next qualify for European Football.

Much has been said about Alan Pardew. I personally believe that he should stay at the club. The problems NUFC have had this season are not down to Pardew as an individual, but more so the lack of squad reinforcements. The possibility that Pardew had his hands tied(by the higher ups) in the summer 2012 transfer window cannot be dismissed. Most importantly, there is a working transfer system in place, with key individuals being Alan Pardew, Graham Carr, Derek Llambias and Mike Ashley. Good players, internationals for their respective nations, have been signed at bargain prices under the current transfer system. Don’t fix what isn’t broken, only tweaks are needed.

My take on potential transfers – Summer 2013:

While 5 new signings were made just a couple of months ago, more signings should be made the summer transfer window. Some players have not performed to expectations and should be sold.

It has already been confirmed that veteran goalkeeper Steve Harper will be leaving at the end of this season. Tim Krul and Rob Elliot have done enough to cement their places as 1st and 2nd choice respectively. However, as a 3rd goalkeeper is needed, a signing in this position should be made, unless young Jak Alnwick is deemed as good enough to make the step up.

And now for the defence. Despite Simpson’s expected departure on an expiring contract, Debuchy and Ryan Taylor have the right back spot covered, James Tavernier would remain as a young prospect. Steven Taylor will be staying, so is Yanga-M’Biwa. Mike Williamson has been a good squad player since joining the club. 1 central defender should be signed, someone who is better than Williamson and hence will keep Steven Taylor and Yanga-M’Biwa on their toes. Pardew could revive previous interest in PSV Eindhoven’s Erik Pieters, or perhaps sign Marseille defender Nicolas N’Koulou. Lille’s Cameroonian centre-half Aurelien Chedjou, West Ham’s James Tomkins and PSG’s Mamadou Sakho have also been linked. If both Coloccini and/or Williamson decide to leave to seek more regular minutes, then at least 2 centre-half signings will be needed. The left back spot is covered by Santon and Haidara.

Where the midfield is concerned, Dan Gosling could be allowed to leave permanently or on loan, and the same goes for Gabriel Obertan, who has been more disappointing than impressive. 2012 summer signing Romain Amalfitano hasn’t made the step up but could be loaned out to give him 1 more season to prove himself. Cabaye, Marveaux, Ben Arfa, Tiote, Sissoko, Anita, Bigirimana and Jonas Gutierrez will, in all likelihood, stay past the summer transfer window. 1 wide player would be a useful signing if Gouffran isn’t seen as a wide player by the coaching staff. However, Shane Ferguson and Sammy Ameobi will be returning from their respective loans, and they have done well while at Birmingham and Middlesborough respectively. With that, perhaps a midfield signing won’t be that crucial.

Up front, Cisse and Shola Ameobi are expected to stay. St-Etienne star Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been seriously looked at as a transfer target, along with the big Geordie Andy Carroll and QPR’s Loic Remy. It has been reported that Remy has a relegation release clause in his contract, and that NUFC are looking at meeting it, though Remy would probably have to take a wage-cut. Aubameyang has been tagged at £10m, but a St-Etienne wanting more wouldn’t be surprising, considering the brilliant 2012/13 season he’s had. Overall, any 2 of Carroll, Aubameyang or Remy would be good business on Tyneside.

(*Key players sold – eg Cabaye, Ben Arfa – will be replaced by similar quality, according to club officials)

Though 2012/13 has been a disappointing and, at times, embarrassing campaign, the current squad is good enough to finish in the Top 10 in 2013/14. If some of the aforementioned suggestions are indeed signed by the club, a top 6 spot wouldn’t be a surprise. After all, no European commitments, a good squad and few injury problems last season resulted in a stellar 5th place finish. With Newcastle United, hardly anything is surprising.

Howay the lads!

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