As we all know—for the old professionals who dominate punditry never tire of telling us—you can’t tackle any more, and that’s why the art of defending is dying, if not already dead.
Luckily for Newcastle United, no one has told Jack Colback, and manager Alan Pardew seems to have been able to keep this piece of conventional wisdom secret from the likes of Paul Dummett and captain Fabricio Coloccini, arguably the man of the match as Chelsea suffered defeat for the first time this season on Saturday.
True, Steven Taylor went a bit too far, spoiling his performance with two ill-judged yellow-card offences, the latter of which looked on the verge of a straight red. But generally, it was an outstanding defensive performance that was the basis of yet another superb result for the Tyneside club and their renascent manager.
The substantial proportion of fans who, only a few months ago, had become frustrated enough to arrive for matches bearing "Pardew Out" placards are now exuding a mixture of defiance and myopia; for all I know, some may be enjoying a laugh at their own expense as Newcastle continue to climb the Premier League table.
But the fact is the club, far from being in danger of relegation, are threatening a push for Europe. They might even flirt with a challenge for the Champions League if they beat Arsenal at the Emirates on Saturday. It would hardly be the shock of the season, given Pardew’s pace in attack and the dismal defending Arsene Wenger oversaw at Stoke City.
Newcastle and Arsenal are now level on points acquired—23. They are also neck and neck on 18 goals conceded, but when you consider the difference in terms of possession—Newcastle had only 34 per cent of the ball at home on Saturday, while Arsenal had 58 per cent away—it is significant.
Not only that. Newcastle conceded 14 goals in their first seven Premier League fixtures, prompting the discontent and the anti-Pardew campaign.
However, they have conceded just four in the past eight—and kept a clean sheet in knocking champions Manchester City out of the Capital One Cup at the Etihad.
So what we are seeing is a team prospering through tactical balance. The very thing that is cited as being deficient when the more lauded Premier League teams, such as City, fall short (and get themselves into situations such as this week’s, when Manuel Pellegrini’s men have to succeed in Rome and hope Bayern have enough motivation to see off CSKA Moscow in Munich).
Though he has often been derided on Tyneside for providing poor entertainment, Pardew has the courage to tailor his approach to the opposition. If he had challenged Chelsea to a pure-football contest on Saturday, he would have lost. Instead, he sought to break up their game—and tackling was a key part of that.
Defending in depth would not have been enough—the fraught closing stages, once Taylor had been sent off, proved that—so it was necessary for Newcastle to win the ball nice and early, well away from their goal. That was where Colback came into his own.
A local boy, he sparked controversy by joining Newcastle on a free transfer from Sunderland in the summer. There were eyebrows raised further afield when Roy Hodgson called him into the England squad earlier in the season; many thought him to be technically ill-equipped for the international scene. But of late, Hodgson’s judgement has seemed less questionable.
Since injury struck down Owen Hargreaves between the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, England have cried out for a natural holding midfielder. On Saturday, Colback proved his worth against the likes of Cesc Fabregas.
Indeed, he could be said to have emphasised what Chelsea missed through the suspension of Nemanja Matic. And what’s more, he showed he could pass in the build-up to one of Papiss Cisse’s goals.
Dummett, at left-back, also played more than his part in what you might call a team ball-winning display, which, not for the first time, marked Pardew out as an expert organiser.
In recent weeks, the Newcastle manager has achieved tactical victories over, among others, Pellegrini and Jose Mourinho. I’m not sure I’d bet against Wenger being added to the list.