I don't believe we've covered the tradition of the Number 9 shirt in our ongoing series of primers on Newcastle United yet, so if you're unaware...it's a special shirt, reserved for special strikers. I'm personally of the opinion that it's completely okay to leave the shirt empty for long periods of time, but whenever it is, people seem to be ready to anoint the next heir to the throne. Following Demba Ba's latest hat trick, away at Stoke on Monday, there were many (at least in my periphery) calling for Pardew to remove the 1 from Ba's kit (Photo (c) Mark Thorstenson, ThunderCLAP! Photography). Ba has scored 8 goals in 9 league appearances, so is it time to start taking this movement seriously?
Many people, when reading the above stat, focus on the first number, or if they're slightly more forward thinking, they do some simple math in their head and realize, "That's almost 1 goal per appearance!" We at CHN advocate for looking at more than just a simple goal-scoring record when evaluating players, even strikers. Yes, the rate is very impressive. That's not the only story, though. If I were to point you to one number to make the case that Ba shouldn't be crowned just yet, I would point you to one I've already provided for you: 9, as in 9 league appearances. Let's talk about small sample size. Nobody believes that if a player scores a hat trick, he's good for 3 goals a game every time out, right? So why, after 9 games, should we believe that Ba is a 1 goal/game player? He once went 8 games without scoring a single goal. What if he did that again? 8 in 17 is still nice, but it's a much different story, right? What about his record at 1899 Hoffenheim - 37 in 97? That's a rate of 1 goal every 2.63 games. I could go on. Sure, he's an older, more experienced player, but it's still a stretch to believe that he can score at this rate, especially since his tally is buoyed by two hat trick performances. Should we expect 8 of those per season? I should think not.
Secondly, what happens if Demba's dodgy knee gets blown out in training tomorrow? We all noted the irony of Ba scoring three against the team that rejected him based on that knee. However, as much fun as it is to rub Tony Pulis' face in it, he's still not necessarily wrong. Newcastle signed Ba on a free, but Stoke City was being asked to commit £9 million. If his career were to be ended in the next season or two by injury, Stoke will have made the right decision (same for Newcastle). The fact remains that this outcome is a distinct possibility, as unsavory a thought as that is. So back to my hypothetical: let's say Pardew gives Ba the Number 9 shirt tomorrow, and on Saturday, against Everton, he falls awkwardly and he's done. Forever. (I'm knocking on wood the whole time I'm writing this, by the way.) The shirt will have been worn by a man that gave less than a half season's worth of work to this club. I'm not okay with that. For me, Number 9 should be worn only by players that have made significant contributions to the club. Ba's contributions have been significant to the season at hand, but not when judged in the context of a 118 year history. 9 games simply isn't enough.
Finally, there's the issue of Ba being an incomplete player. He scores goals, and presumably that's enough to be considered a great striker. For me, though, he's not involved enough in other aspects of the game for me to feel comfortable granting him that label (last week's performance notwithstanding). He often touches the ball around 20-25 times a game, completes about half of his passes, and so far this year, he's played the full 90 minutes twice.
There are some auxiliary issues for Alan Pardew to consider as well. First, would giving him the shirt put undue pressure on him? How would he respond to that pressure? Second, what happens when Ba leaves for the Africa Cup of Nations in January? It's going to be a blow either way, but why subject the team to a bunch of "How are you going to cope without your number nine?" questions from the media? Finally, and this is purely speculation - has Pardew been dangling the shirt as an incentive for strikers like Modibo Maiga when trying to convince them to make the leap? Might be best to leave it empty until some competition can be brought in.
I love Demba Ba. I'm glad he's on this team. I'm even more glad he was brought in on a free and makes a decent wage. What makes me the happiest is that we're able to have this conversation at all. I'm just not sold on him as the face of the team, and I'm not likely to be at any point this season, if I'm honest. I want to see a high quality body of work sustained over some period of time while with this club before I even think about bestowing such an honor on a player. I hope he proves me wrong. I hope he continues to score goals at this clip and that his part in the game plan at Stoke (where he was used marvelously) continues to grow. Right now, I'm not seeing it.