Upon his return to Newcastle in January 2008, Kevin Keegan spoke of the weight of expectation and the fans’ desire to be entertained; how they want to “see something that’s worth seeing”. He likened a visit to St James’ Park for one of the Geordie faithful as being akin to a trip to the theatre for the more cerebral and culturally-inclined southerners. While it may have been a slightly cringe-worthy analogy, his conviction was palpable and we all understood what he meant.
Keegan has always known what he’s wanted and he is synonymous with a certain style of football. His 1996 team captured the public’s imagination in a way that no team ever had or, arguably, has done since – at least until Pep Guardiola took the reins at Barcelona. Essentially, you know what you get when you appoint Keegan. The same, however, cannot be said for Alan Pardew.
While last season’s superb 5th place finish rightly saw Pardew lauded, it’s fair to say that he doesn’t adhere to any particular philosophy – nor does the team don’t have any identifiable style of play. Indeed, this struggle for an identity has been on-going since Bobby Robson’s departure and while Keegan’s return ultimately didn’t result in a repeat of the heroics of the mid-90s, at least it was a step in the right direction. Since Ashley forced Keegan out, however, the subsequent managerial merry-go-round has ensured that the good ship Newcastle has been somewhat rudderless.
The popular perception is that having weathered the storm after his initial arrival, Pardew set about overhauling the team by shipping out the likes of Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton in favour of more technically gifted ball-players like Yohan Cabaye. Granted, there were some superb performances and excellent results last season but Newcastle are not the free-flowing, dynamic attacking force that many believe them to be. Indeed, when they were at their most scintillating in the final third of last season, it was more by accident than design – with a rejuvenated Hatem Ben Arfa finding form and confidence at a particularly opportune time and Papiss Cissé hitting a prodigious purple patch shortly after his arrival.
Newcastle’s current problems lie in the fact that they have no footballing philosophy to speak of. This season has been a chaotic shambles so far and despite his new 8 year deal, Pardew will know that a failure to arrest the recent decline could edge him towards the exit door. Contracts aren’t worth the paper they’re written on and Mike Ashley is nothing if not brave and ruthless, so his position is far from assured. Nor, however, is it anywhere near untenable just yet despite a disastrous and scarcely-believable run of 5 defeats in 6 games against some of the league’s lesser lights.
While their points tallies are low, both Liverpool and Aston Villa’s recent performances have been quite encouraging and the decision to abandon the quick fix in favour of a more sustainable long-term strategy looks curiously far-sighted in a world where instant gratification is routinely demanded. Similarly, fans have more patience than they are given credit for and Rodgers and Lambert may well reap great rewards in the coming years as they are being afforded the time needed to implement a new playing style and to instill a fresh ethos in their respective clubs. The time has come for Pardew to do something similar.
It’s fair to say that this season has been a write-off for quite a while now and the best we can hope for is to avoid spending the next few months in a relegation dogfight. However, Pardew can turn the situation to his advantage in the second half of the season by attempting to develop a signature style of play and to bring some cohesion to a fragmented group of talented, yet purposeless, players.
The common misconception is that Newcastle’s midfield quartet of Ben Arfa, Cabaye, Tiote and Gutierrez are the heartbeat of the team and that they dictate the tempo of the game and carve out opportunities for whichever of the Senegalese strikers is in the mood that particular day. The truth, however, is that Newcastle are heavily reliant on the long ball and the midfielders spend a significant proportion of every game stargazing as hopeful balls are repeatedly launched over their heads in the vain hope that Ba or Cissé can make some magic happen should they happen to get on the end of it, which is a rarity. (Though, rarer still are the occasions when the aforementioned players are all actually on the pitch together at the same time).
If he wants to play a direct, long-ball style then Pardew needs to have courage in his convictions – he shouldn’t attempt to sugar-coat it and to pull the wool over the fans’ eyes. If it’s to be long-ball, target-man football then Andy Carroll needs to come home. If it’s not, then either Ba or Cissé need to be sacrificed and the appropriate personnel must be deployed in the 4-3-3 system that reaped so many rewards last season, rather than attempting to shoe-horn an out-and-out striker into an unfamiliar wide position. Similarly, Ben Arfa’s match-winning magic is compromised when he’s required to play on the wing as his talents are better suited to playing centrally and creating space for others as well as wreaking havoc himself with his thunderous shooting and his delightfully incisive passing.
Also, it might be a loss of appetite or perhaps it’s complacency brought on by the lack of competition in the squad but Danny Simpson and Jonas Gutierrez have been particularly disappointing this season and may well have out-lived their usefulness. They’ve both been great servants in recent years and have made massive contributions but neither is deserving of a starting berth anymore and must be replaced if Newcastle are to progress. Jonas in particular looks a spent force as he has lost a yard of pace and no longer goes on the long, mazy runs which he was famed for in his early days, while his unreliable delivery and distribution have diminished even further in recent times.
On the other hand, while Davide Santon has been one of the stand-out performers this season, he has shone more as an attacking threat than as the heir apparent to Paolo Maldini, which he was mooted to be during his breakthrough season with Inter. His marauding runs, mazy dribbles and quick thinking have invited comparisons with a young Gareth Bale – a similarly gifted player who also started out as a full-back before being moved higher up the pitch to take full advantage of his talents. One wonders whether Pardew might consider making full use of Santon’s abilities and deploying him as a right-winger and buying a specialist left back in January. It would bring a greater balance to the side and could rejuvenate and reinvigorate the team as an attacking force.
Of course, such a gamble may not pay off but the time has come to think outside the box as Pardew needs to stamp his authority on a team that looks increasingly clueless, unimaginative and one-dimensional. He can no longer afford to rely on moments of individual brilliance from match-winning mavericks like Ba and Ben Arfa. The time is nigh for Pardew to cultivate a signature style; a philosophy on how the game should be played. Nobody’s expecting Barcelona’s tiki-taka but a little joined-up thinking and cohesion would go a long way and may just be the making of him as he struggles to stay in control of his destiny having enjoyed a remarkable journey during his first two years at St James’ Park. Then, who knows what might happen - sentimental old romantics in years to come may recall ‘the good old days’ of Pardew’s Newcastle with the same wistful smile and far-away look in their eyes that they currently reserve for Kevin Keegan and his ‘Class of ‘96’.