Reading vs. Newcastle: 6 Things We Learned About the Toon's Prospects This Year
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It wouldn't be unfair to say that Newcastle were lucky to escape with a draw when they travelled to Reading on Saturday. After going behind twice, Demba Ba arrived to rescue them on both occasions—albeit once with his hand.
After a dull first hour, the game came alive and Reading looked the more threatening of the two teams. Newcastle had five- to 10-minute spells of possession, but spent a lot of time chasing the game, as they often have this year.
Reading skipper Jobi McAnuff struck the woodwork in injury time, but it was not to be his team's day.
It was a ragged Toon performance and they will be grateful for the point. This has been typical of the year so far, with elements of the first six games following similar patterns.
It is these patterns that will shape the fortunes of the season.
Hatem Ben Arfa Will Keep Newcastle in a Lot of Games
Ben Arfa provides a spark that is vital to the midfield.
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Although the first half was mostly forgettable, the Magpies had spells of dominance during the first 20 minutes. They looked like the better side at this point, channeling most of the attacking play through Hatem Ben Arfa.
Because of the absent Yohan Cabaye, Ben Arfa assumed the main creative role in the midfield. He looked threatening whenever he was on the ball and Reading seemed to back off him rather than be drawn into a challenge.
Either on the break or building an attack, Ben Arfa was the one in the thick of it. The only problem he had was that he couldn't deliver the final ball. Several promising attacks came to nothing due to poor crosses or a lack of support in the box.
Both Newcastle and Reading had problems in the final third, but Ben Arfa ensured that the threat remained.
Although his involvement diminished in the second half as Reading asserted themselves, there was expectation every time he touched the ball. The impact that a player like this can have over the course of a season is invaluable.
The Defence Needs Strengthening
The Newcastle defence suffered after Steven Taylor left the field.
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Newcastle were without Fabricio Coloccini again on Saturday, but looked more than capable until Steven Taylor went off after 55 minutes. This meant a reshuffle took place, with James Perch moving to centre-back and James Tavernier coming on at right-back.
Within minutes of Taylor leaving the field, the defence conceded two goals and looked totally unsure of themselves. In many ways that was to be expected, as injuries forced players into the first team who wouldn’t usually play much of a part, but good sides function on strength in depth.
Injuries are a part of every season for every team, but it’s how they rebound from them that gives an indication of quality. Newcastle should have signed a defensive player over the summer and failed to do so; Alan Pardew cannot make the same mistake again in January.
Tavernier is a versatile defender and seems set to figure in the Newcastle set-up for years to come. However, the team needs a proven right-back who has the authority to command the defence and make them into a unit.
Steve Harper Is Still a Quality Goalkeeper
Harper has been a great servant for Newcastle and made some fine saves to keep them in the game on Saturday.
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Making his 195th appearance for Newcastle, Harper was integral to the Toon leaving the Madejski Stadium with any points at all, making two fine second-half saves to extend Reading’s heartache for another week.
Although he isn’t likely to replace Tim Krul anytime, Harper demonstrated the value of having experienced players in backup positions.
Much as Rob Elliot did against Manchester United in the Capital One Cup, Harper looked in complete control of his area, positioning himself perfectly and comfortably dealing with everything in the air.
His full-stretch save from Pavel Pogrebnyak’s header was a particular highlight and helped Newcastle get something out of a game in which they were largely second best.
With the defence stretched from injury, the inexperienced back line needed to be calmed by the performance of their ‘keeper. Harper did exactly that, and the authority he showed in the box added a stabilising factor to a defence that looked more than a little panicky.
Demba Ba Must Be Retained
Ba was fortunate with his second goal, but again showed his quality.
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The rumours just won’t go away. After netting both goals in this game—taking his tally to six from six games this season—the transfer talk immediately began anew.
The Guardian reported that Ba is unhappy with his wages and looking to go somewhere that will compensate him better for his contributions to the game.
The same article states that Liverpool are willing to meet the £7.5 million release clause in Ba’s contract, as part of a deal that could see Andy Carroll return to Tyneside.
Ba has said that he is happy at Newcastle and just wants to play, so the latest rumours could be the sole work of his agent attempting to get Ba a better salary. Letting Ba walk would prove costly, so this cannot remain unaddressed.
On the evidence of his performances so far, Pardew needs to end the rumours right now. Whether it comes in the form of increased wages or by meeting with the player and his agent to end the speculation, such talk of unrest will do nothing for Newcastle’s prospects this season.
The Midfield Is Content to Let the Opposition Play
The Toon were second to the ball for a lot of the afternoon, looking laboured in midfield.
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Last season Newcastle looked hungry for the ball, chasing down supposedly superior opponents and never letting them settle. This hasn’t been the case since the start of the new season and it continued on Saturday.
Reading were desperate for a win, but they should not have been given so much freedom in the middle. For large portions of the game, the Toon midfield looked slow and weary, as if the trip to Berkshire brought with it a hitherto unknown time difference that was responsible for their fatigue.
Reading controlled the midfield and looked unlikely to be dispossessed. Newcastle were untroubled in defence, but the midfield looked unlikely to make the move needed to gain the upper hand.
This lack of energy contributed to the dullness of the first half, and it wasn’t until they went behind that Newcastle were spurred into action. Ba’s volley showed any spectators how good technique grants that extra edge, but Reading were soon back in front and Newcastle were left chasing the game. Again.
This time around they were saved by pure luck, with Ba’s handball adding to the misery of Reading as they search for their first win. It’s a cruel fact of Premier League life: when you’re in dire need of a break, the luck often goes the other way.
The Team Has a Great Deal of Spirit
Alan Pardew's side has shown an unwillingness to give up on games, which has already served them well.
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Despite their lack of vitality this season, all the determination and abject refusal to surrender is certainly still in place around St. James’ Park.
This is present among both fans and players. Despite the stadium name officially being the Sports Direct Arena, fans have been painting its former moniker on the entrance wall since the rebranding, refusing to let the history die.
The players have carried this fighting spirit through into the fixtures. Although they may have deserved to lose at least three of the league games played, Newcastle have in fact just lost one—a 2-0 defeat at Chelsea.
While it’s true that Demba Ba has been the catalyst for many a comeback, the other 10 players on the pitch have matched his fighting spirit. It’s a sad fact of the modern league that teams often seem content to take a loss if they find themselves on the wrong side of the scoreline with only a few minutes remaining.
The Magpies have no such defeatist attitudes and will chase the game to the end. This was illustrated by their 4-4 draw with Arsenal in February of last year, when they erased a 4-0 halftime deficit to share the spoils on a day when some fans left before the second half.
An earlier Carling Cup fixture between the two sides had ended on that score, so their lack of faith was understandable at that point. The recent sale of Andy Carroll was heavy on their minds and the team looked unlikely to get anything from the game.
I used to work opposite St. James’ Park, and that day was an exercise in contrast. The level of dejection on the faces of fans leaving at halftime was only matched by the elation of the supporters who stuck it out until the end.
That triumph taught them that a game is never out of reach, and it has carried them through to this point. It’s true that the team needs more depth, more energy and a more concerted effort from the start, but there aren’t many other sides you would take in a crisis right now.