Alan Pardew has given many reasons for the lacklustre performance of his Newcastle side this season, but the stories varied so often that it became difficult to believe what he was saying.
Following the home defeat to Swansea in November, Pardew stated that it was the Swans’ experience that decided the fixture. As reported by the South Wales Evening Post, six of the Swansea players had never played at St. James’ Park, while goalkeeper Gerhard Tremmel and forward Itay Shechter were completely untested in the starting lineup.
The tide began to turn on Pardew around this point, and his post-match interviews became so predictable that you could plan drinking games around them.
Every time he mentions injuries, do a shot. Every time he gives “credit to the lads” despite the defeat, do another shot. If he mentions the Europa League, down another. When the difference is perceived to be “that final bit of quality,” do another shot and start to regret inventing the game.
The reason Pardew’s words became things to laugh at rather than listen to is because Newcastle fans know their club, and they can tell when the manager is skirting round the issue.
The reasons for the decline of the team did involve the things the manager mentioned, but they weren’t the whole issue.
Every team suffers with injuries at some point. Some teams face injury battles every year. The way they overcome it is through a deep squad that features players capable of competing in the Premier League.
In many ways, Newcastle’s fifth-place finish last year was unfortunate. It persuaded owner Mike Ashley that there was no need to strengthen the squad for the coming season, despite the fact that they were now playing European football.
However, the thing that was ignored above all else was that the Magpies got very lucky with injuries last season, and Pardew had the luxury of calling on a full squad almost every week. This covered the fact that the drop-off in talent behind the first team was severe.
When Yohan Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa went down, the team couldn’t create anything through the midfield. Vurnon Anita had just arrived and was suddenly expected to run the midfield like a veteran, which was obviously impossible. He improved as the weeks went on, but the damage was noticeable.
The defence bypassed the midfield and instead punted the ball toward Demba Ba, hoping that he could make something of it. To his credit, he did that more than could reasonably have been expected.
Blaming Europe wasn’t going to carry any weight, because a look at the lineups between Premier and Europa League games showed there were regularly eight or nine different players starting. Arguing that the inexperienced players were being forced to start European games was fine, but the fact is that they were winning those games while the regular starters were losing in the domestic league.
The injuries played their part, but it was the lack of depth within the squad that hurt the team the most.
There are many supporters who argue that Pardew is not the right man for the job. This is either based solely on results, or the way the team looked disinterested and capitulated in many games.
Either way, by the end of 2012 it was becoming increasingly difficult to argue with the detractors.
The squad was depleted, which meant Pardew was forced to think on his feet over the course of each match. He is not at his best during these situations, preferring to tweak his gameplan rather than overhaul it.
The formation puzzled many people, this writer included. With fewer senior players to call upon, Pardew seemed to start every game playing for a draw. Rather than trying to score, he was trying not to concede.
Pardew switched from the 4-3-3 that made Newcastle so exciting last year, instead preferring a 4-4-2 that attempted to get bodies behind the ball and hit teams on the counter. Unfortunately, no one seemed to understand this.
The 4-4-2 didn’t work, and Ba and Papiss Cisse struggled to co-exist. They made the same runs, and Cisse in particular had trouble staying onside. Long balls replaced short passes, and the home fans became restless.
For his part, Pardew seemed unable to pull the team out of its rut. If he was insisting on change, the players weren’t responding. There was little desire present on the field, leading to results like the 7-3 hammering at Arsenal. Newcastle were in that game until the final 10 minutes, when they simply rolled over and gave up the points.
Despite this, Pardew failed to make the necessary changes. He persisted with Jonas Gutierrez when he had Sylvain Marveaux ready to go in his place, while seeming unwilling to give youngsters like Adam Campbell a chance to prove themselves.
Rigidity of Business Model
Football clubs are run as a business. Nobody is under any illusion that every board of directors is dedicated to success and glory. The club needs to make a profit, and success comes second.
Ashley has done well from the business side of things, ensuring the club is financially stable and run effectively. However, he is sometimes unwilling to open his wallet—which was the case this year—and this affects the team.
Managing director Derek Llambias admitted to The Chronicle that the club had rigidly adhered to its business model over the offseason, insisting that they had sufficient depth within the side to cope with the demands of the new season.
This meant that any requests for new players were denied—with the exception of Anita—and Pardew was forced to proceed with the players he had.
Had the injuries not been so frequent and debilitating, would they have suceeded? Possibly, and it’s those sorts of risks that can pan out as fantastic decisions for a business.
However, from a footballing perspective, it just makes no sense. With the additional European games on the fixture list, there’s no way that the team could have progressed without some squad rotation.
Concentrating on one competition leaves a team vulnerable to defeat elsewhere, and Newcastle’s board must have known this. Spreading a team so thin over the course of a densely packed year isn’t going to yield good results, no matter how profitable the club may be.
A club in turmoil is not a successful one, and the end of 2012 showed that. Fans turned against Pardew, Ashley, Llambias and the players, leaving games early and demanding improvement—and new arrivals—in 2013.
Thankfully, Pardew got the chance to bring in the players he wanted. He has the benefit of Graham Carr and an excellent scouting network, so the financial cost was pretty minimal. Moussa Sissoko, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Yoan Gouffran and Mathieu Debuchy arrived and immediately rewarded the investment.
The team has a spark again, and now begin to climb the table.
Lesson learned? Maybe.