Updated at 12:45 PM CST with a poll
24 year-old midfielder Stephen Ireland is eying a return from his knee injury. (NUFC Official Site) Ireland, who joined Newcastle on loan at the end of the January transfer window, hasn't seen Premier League action since early December.
Newcastle's midfield is pretty crowded, which led me to question the loan move for Ireland when it happened. The move did happen, though, so Alan Pardew now has the task of determining where Ireland fits into the formation. I see three viable ways this could pan out (though the viability of the first two is considerably less than the last). Follow the jump to see what they are.
1. Stephen Ireland replaces one of the wingers.
It makes sense for Ireland to play the wing; he's got pace and crossing ability. Besides, Pardew isn't going to replace his captain, Kevin Nolan, or his defensive midfielder, Cheik Tiote, with an attack-minded player. That leaves Jonás Gutiérrez and Joey Barton.
Barton takes all the team's free kicks, and with Ryan Taylor still out due to injury, there isn't anybody else who has shown proficiency at the job available (though it would be intriguing to see Jose Enrique Sanchez in that role). He also has demonstrated pinpoint accuracy on occasion with his crosses, but could also be part of the problem in that he loves to take the aerial route rather than attack on the ground, something that I think should be an emphasis with Andy Carroll gone and Shola Ameobi probably out for the next match. Barton also tends to gravitate toward the center of the pitch, which is understandable as he's more naturally suited for a role in the middle, but often attacks down the right end up with Danny Simpson alone on an island as a result.
Jonás, despite having a very good game against Birmingham City on Tuesday (he was voted our Man of the Match), has been in questionable form over the last couple of months. His crosses haven't been connecting (again, with the last match as the exception) and he's gotten the team in trouble on more than one occasion trying to make that extra dribble. However, Jonás' last performance does provide a glimmer of hope that he could turn the corner soon. He's also a proficient defender and has an established chemistry with Jose Enrique that gives JE the confidence to move forward as an attacking presence.
That Ireland could replace one of the two is a possibility, but I don't really see it happening, to be honest. Pardew has shown faith in his 4 midfielders, to the point that none of them appear to be replaceable at the moment. Which leads us to...
2. Pardew switches to a 4-5-1, with Stephen Ireland playing Attacking Midfielder
Alan Pardew hasn't shown the affinity for the 4-5-1 that Chris Hughton did while he was at Newcastle, but the formation begins to make sense when you consider that the team is woefully thin at striker and abundant in midfielders. In some ways, a 4-5-1 complements the strengths of the team and would serve to get a better Starting XI on the pitch. Here's why I think a 4-5-1 would work, instead of a 4-4-1-1 or any other variation: Kevin Nolan. With 10 goals to his name, Nolan is the highest scorer currently on the team. He's established himself as a scoring midfielder, one that opposing teams must account for defensively. Lately, he's had to play more of a defensive role (while Cheik Tiote was suspended) and hasn't been much of a factor in the aerial game, though he did have some chances against Birmingham. If Ireland can play an attacking role as well, Newcastle can morph their shape at times to look more like a 4-3-3, giving Barton and Jonás more options.
Here's the real reason I'd like to see Pardew try this: I believe this is the role Hatem Ben Arfa is suited for, and since his profile matches up fairly well with Ireland, this could be a good trial run to see if the other players can handle it before Ben Arfa comes back from injury as well.
3. Stephen Ireland Provides Depth from the Bench
This is by far the most likely of scenarios. The team has been on a run of pretty good form, and I don't think Pardew will want to mess with that by making any drastic changes. He has shown a commitment to continuity by stubbornly keeping Leon Best and Peter Lovenkrands together, despite indications that maybe Nile Ranger is a better option that one or the other on some days.
Ireland's style is a player is such that I could see him being brought in as a replacement in any number of situations. When ahead, he could replace a striker without sacrificing too much on the attacking side, and he could also come in for an ineffective midfielder if a spark is needed. If he does well in one of these roles, perhaps he could work his way into the starting lineup in one of the ways I listed above. And if he does that, I guess we'll have to consider the loan a success.