BY WASIM PARKAR – FAN FUEL BLOGGER
Tyneside and St. James Park is where our next preview takes us, as Newcastle hope to recover from a poor season last time out and the tumultuous boardroom moves of the summer.
It was probably too good to last. Newcastle’s amazing fifth place finish to end the 2011-12 season now seems like a distant memory. Events since then have only served to reinforce the Magpies long association with the tragicomic side of football. For starters, owner Mike Ashley gave a frankly absurd eight-year contract to manager Alan Pardew last season. Then in the aftermath of a very poor season that involved a relegation battle that a squad of such quality had no business being involved in, Ashley appointed Joe Kinnear as director of football.
Kinnear’s arrival at St. James Park has dominated all the talk around Newcastle’s pre-season. For starters, the man announced his appointment even before the club did, and went on to declare his authority on transfers, completely undermining Pardew in one swoop. Pardew lamented the lack of transfer activity last summer as the squad suffered from a lack of depth. So far Kinnear hasn’t done much to rectify that mistake, as the Geordie faithful enter the new season filled with trepidation.
On defence: Tim Krul is still number one at the club, and the fact that the player remains despite being one of the best goalkeepers in the league is a matter of some solace to the Toon Army. While Krul is undoubtedly first choice between the sticks, veteran Steve Harper has left the club after being a reliable understudy for so long. If Krul does get injured, Rob Elliot doesn’t inspire the same level of confidence.
Another boon for the Magpies is the fact that skipper Fabricio Coloccini is on the squad, despite what seemed like a certain departure back home to Argentina at the end of last season. Newcastle stalwart Steven Taylor will most likely partner Coloccini in the centre of defence. However, Taylor has lost a yard of pace after injury problems have plagued him in recent years. As aerial assaults into the box become a less frequent feature of the league, it might be the season where Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa gets a chance to settle into the division and show the quality that made him such a vital member of Montpellier’s Ligue 1 winning team in 2012. Mike Williamson remains as perennial second-choice centre-back.
Davide Santon has become a crucial player for the Toon in the last two seasons. The Italian is still naïve with his positioning at the back at times, but as a left-back who is comfortable on the ball he adds an extra dimension to the attack with his ability to beat players and constant overlapping to support the forwards. On the other flank, the Premier League should see the best of French international right-back Mathieu Debuchy after spending six months in the league followed by a full pre-season to acclimatize to the English game. In reserve, Newcastle can call upon utility player and set piece specialist Ryan Taylor or French left-back Massadio Haïdara.
The midfield: The midfield partnership between Yohan Cabaye and Cheick Tioté was absolutely crucial in Newcastle’s excellent campaign in 2012. Unfortunately both players regressed last season, Tioté more so than Cabaye. On his day Cabaye can still pull the strings in midfield and dictate the flow of the game as the playmaker. Throw into the mix his potency with free kicks and the ability to hit precise through balls, and it becomes clear that Newcastle are better with Cabaye in the team.
Tioté on the other hand has taken a few steps backward. At his best the Ivorian is an immense physical presence in midfield, excellent in the tackle and very good at carrying the ball forward from defensive positions. The problem for Pardew is that Tioté hasn’t been at his best for a while now. Pardew has to work his magic on Tioté and get him to perform at the levels that made Arsenal and Manchester United interested in his services.
Jonás Gutiérrez is another player who witnessed a dip in performance last year. The Argentinean is extremely hard working and a big reason for his struggles last year was Pardew consistently chopping and changing his position on the field, suggesting that Gutiérrez’s poor form was almost a victim of his own versatility and commitment. Moussa Sissoko raced out of the blocks when he joined the club in January, delivering man-of-the-match performances against Aston Villa and Chelsea. Unfortunately he faded badly towards the end of the season. Sissoko should be recharged for the new season, and if the midfielder can maintain consistency, he could be a viable alternative to Tioté alongside Cabaye.
On the attack: The double-Senegalese axis was broken up in January as Demba Ba was sold to Chelsea. Papiss Cisse remains, despite a row due to a betting company sponsoring the club shirt clashing with his Islamic beliefs, threatening to end his tenure at the club. If Cisse can recapture the form that made him such a sensation when he first arrived in England, the Magpies will be well served.
Kinnear’s only signing so far is that of Loïc Rémy on loan from QPR. The French striker brings with him poise and class, and is better all-round footballer than Cisse. However, there is an impending court case pertaining to a serious rape allegation against Remy, so until then Newcastle might have to rely on the energy and industry of Yoan Gouffran to deliver some goals.
Two injury-prone French wingers remain in the squad. Sylvain Marveaux showed in flashes last season that he can be a genuine threat on the wing. The real game-changer however is Hatem Ben Arfa. If Ben Arfa somehow plays a full season with focus and desire, his trickery on the ball and directness should ensure Newcastle being nowhere near the relegation dogfight.
Conclusion: There is an uneasy vibe around St. James Park at the moment. Kinnear and Pardew are on course for an inevitable clash, and the short odds on Pardew being the first manager to lose his job in the Premier League suggest that Ashley is going to back the director rather than the manager. Pre-season has been a bit of a mixed bag, with three wins, two draws and one loss so far. The same form is probably going to be duplicated once the regular season starts, as Newcastle come to terms with a campaign that has been made even more difficult by Ashley’s actions.