Newcastle's home defeat to West Ham exemplified a lacklustre season so far.
Newcastle haven't been a consistently good team this year—sometimes they haven’t been good, or a team— and Alan Pardew's recent comment that they can still finish in the top four of the Premier League seemed more like hope than expectation. However, it's also not out of the question.
Just from an initial look at the squad, there's no denying the talent available. Hatem Ben Arfa, Papiss Cisse, Demba Ba, Yohan Cabaye and Cheick Tiote all have the ability to change games individually, while Tim Krul gives the team both athleticism and reliability between the sticks.
Davide Santon has proved himself to be a worthy addition to the left side of the defence and possesses an attacking instinct that makes him a dangerous player going forward.
Fabricio Coloccini showed his quality by stepping into the Tyne-Wear derby on his return from injury and looking totally at ease, and the team has solid role-players who can contribute when needed.
Last year's fifth-place finish showed that Newcastle can put together a consistent campaign, so why have they frustrated so much this year?
Ba resumed his form from the first half of last year, while Cisse has been unable to capture the magic that saw him net 13 goals in 14 games after arriving in January. Losing momentum between seasons is commonplace, especially when the games after arrival are so impressive so quickly.
Can Newcastle finish in the top four this year?
It’s unreasonable to expect Cisse to continue at the same pace, but his lack of form has been a worry for the team. He has struggled with the timing of his runs and is easily caught offside. As the season progresses, opposition teams have played the offside trap more and Cisse hasn’t made the right adjustments.
The home defeat to West Ham on Sunday exemplified the problems Newcastle have had this year. The 4-4-2 continued to look like a system that holds them back, and without Tiote and Coloccini, the team lacked leadership and direction in the defence and midfield.
Switching between a 4-3-3 for European fixtures and a 4-4-2 for domestic games denies the team a consistent rhythm, despite the fact that there were nine changes from the side that drew 2-2 with Club Brugge in the Europa League.
Newcastle old boys Kevin Nolan and Andy Carroll controlled the West Ham attack, looking comfortable shielding the ball and holding off the defence as the Toon struggled to regain possession. Fans were left to ponder their own attack while watching former players dominate their defence.
Pardew seems to be the only person who still believes Ba and Cisse can play together, while the rest of the team seem content to punt long balls up in the hope that Cisse will somehow connect with them.
In fact, 16 percent of all Newcastle’s passes were long balls, while West Ham’s only accounted for 12 percent (via @NUFC_Stats). Cisse was substituted at halftime, but Shola Ameobi scarcely fared better.
Sam Allardyce is renowned—sometimes unfairly—as a route one manager, so to see Newcastle reliant on those tactics was disheartening. West Ham did it better, as well. The most successful passer relationship for the Hammers was Jussi Jaaskelainen to Andy Carroll, with 15 completed passes—all of which could be considered long balls up-field.
Newcastle’s comparative stat was Steven Taylor to Michael Williamson, who shared 10 completed passes. All of them were balls across the defence (via FourFourTwo Stats Zone).
This shows the lack of attacking intent from the side, and it’s something that has plagued them all year. They’ve had to grind out results through luck and Ba rather than through skill and teamwork, which produces dull football that deflates even the most loyal of fans.
So why the optimistic headline?
As stated earlier, the talent on this team belies their current league position. Newcastle currently sit in 10th place, six points off the top four. Of the sides that stand between them, only Arsenal, Tottenham and Everton are realistic contenders. While West Brom, West Ham and Fulham have started brightly, the likelihood of them maintaining this for an entire season is low.
Newcastle have already beaten Spurs, drawn away at Everton and beaten West Brom, so they know they are as good as the teams that sit above them.
Defeat to West Ham was a miserable experience, but there is still time to save the season. Arsenal, in particular, look as beatable as they have been in years, so there is plenty of reason for hope.
The best thing about Newcastle so far is that they have shown an admirable refusal to give up on games, getting points from performances that they didn’t deserve to. This is something that will stand them in good stead, but the team has to commit to the system.
In recent games, they have looked like they don’t believe in what Pardew is trying to implement. The 4-3-3 is clearly where they look comfortable—one look at a Europa League game will prove that—and as a result, they play the 4-4-2 as if they don’t believe in it.
It’s almost as if the team has got together and decided to play poorly in a 4-4-2 so that Pardew will switch it back. The manager cannot afford to lose the dressing room—especially given the long-term nature of his contract—as players will start to leave and the team will then enter a rebuilding phase.
Pardew will have been confident in his declaration of ambition, but the team can’t finish in the top four while playing a system that’s detrimental to their progress. Pardew needs to assess his own contribution and decide whether he is doing everything he can to get the best out of his players.
There remains the threat of Ba's departure in January, so there has to be a contingency plan should his release clause be activated in the transfer window. Losing Ba's goals would be the most derailing thing for the season at this point.
There is no doubt that Newcastle have the players to back up their manager’s statement. They can indeed finish in the top four. Whether they will is another matter entirely, and one over which Pardew has complete control.