Encouraging Signs for Newcastle United in the Wake of Manchester United Defeat
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The Premier League table gives no points for performance, but if it did, Newcastle United would have got something out of the game when they left Old Trafford on Boxing Day.
Leading three times, they were again on the losing end of a seven-goal thriller, having lost 4-3 at Anfield in both 1996 and '97. The misery was compounded by a poor challenge on Vurnon Anita by Antonio Valencia, and the Dutch player left on a stretcher.
The feeling persists that had Cheick Tiote made the challenge, he would be serving a suspension right now. Of course, the irony is that he was serving a suspension for the game at Old Trafford anyway.
The first positive thing that can be taken from the game is the attitude. October and November were difficult months for the Toon Army, as players seemed not to trust the system they were playing within and slumped to a succession of defeats.
The last few games have seen an upturn in desire, if not fortunes.
Victories against Wigan and QPR have been followed by losses to Manchester City and now United, but the level of effort is vastly improved on the previous two months. There has been a renewed dedication among the team that isn't simply caused by the increasingly real threat of relegation.
Against United, Newcastle looked passionate and creative, with Sylvain Marveaux finally getting the start many fans have been shouting for. He was unlucky not to score when his free kick struck the underside of the crossbar. Going into halftime 3-1 up would have completely changed the second half.
It may have taken an injury to Jonas Gutierrez to get him there, but Marveaux's performance should ensure that he remains in the lineup. With Hatem Ben Arfa and Yohan Cabaye out, the Toon have been devoid of inspiration in midfield, which has led to long balls and hopeful free kicks.
Marveaux linked well with Anita, who grows in stature with every game. Anita's touch automatically gives him an advantage, so the game speeds up every time the ball is played to him.
He has survived a rocky start to become a consistent and reliable player. Much more so than Tiote, who is too casual in possession and surrenders the ball easily through bad passes.
As good a servant as Gutierrez has been for the team, he doesn't get players involved the same way Marveaux does, and his time on Tyneside is coming to an end.
Both Marveaux and Anita were an example of how to play Manchester United, especially with the defence being particularly porous this year. They controlled the midfield and used the wide players to stretch the defence and create opportunities.
The 4-3-3 is a much better option for the Magpies. With creative players in the midfield, it allows them to beat opposing defences with both pace and numbers. Newcastle did both of those things, and the result was three goals at Old Trafford.
Danny Simpson had a better game this week, but his crossing is consistently poor and dissolves a lot of promising moves. Newcastle need to bring in a right-back in January that can solve this problem, as they now look threatening going forward.
The goal from Cisse was also encouraging, as it showed a real striker's finish and served as a reminder that he should really be playing in the centre. Confidence is one thing; being played out of position is another.
Something needs to be done about the Demba Ba situation in January; he has resisted signing a new deal for such a long time it has become detrimental to the team. If he is committed to the club, then he will sign. If not, then he should walk.
What do Newcastle need the most in the January transfer window?
The team cannot hold on to a player who demands more wages than everyone else on the team and refuses to sign any deal that is sent his way. The release clause hangs like a noose over Alan Pardew's head, but with Ba's injury history, there is no guarantee that other teams will take him on. He is loved on Tyneside, but fans will only put up with protracted contract disputes for so long.
Ba's goals have been the only thing saving Newcastle at times, so with the current contract issues, it was nice to see other players get their names on the scoresheet. James Perch got his first goal for Newcastle, which probably caused a surfeit of Perch tattoos across the city as a result of lost bets.
The defensive effort was still lacking, and the feeling persists that both Danny Simpson and Mike Williamson are Championship players, but these positions should have been strengthened in the last offseason.
However, if Newcastle play the way they did on Boxing Day, the whispers of relegation will disappear almost immediately. Even with many first-team starters out, they went ahead three times at Old Trafford and deserved to come away with something.
Even though it wasn't points, the fact remains that they actually did leave Manchester with something: pride.
Of course they would have preferred points, but momentum is a key component in sport, and Newcastle suddenly have a little. In the end, that is what will carry them through this season.
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