On Saturday, Newcastle traveled to Britannia Stadium and got beat down 4-0 by another mid-table team. Does that mean that it's time to panic? Follow the jump for my diagnosis.
Any conversation about this game has to start with Alan Pardew's new 3-5-2 formation. I've been thinking about this off and on for a few days now, and the one question I keep coming back to is, "Why?" There was really no reason to go about making a change. None of the usual suspect were out with injury, and Pardew had given his word that Newcastle were going to play their game and not become too enamored with Stoke City's style of play...so does this formation and personnel package represent what the Toon will look like going forward?
The new formation makes sense on one level. Danny Simpson and Jose Enrique Sanchez have both proven adept at moving forward and making crosses into the box, all the while getting back on defense and keeping up with the opposition's wingers, so putting them in a wingback position and encouraging them to be aggressive is a natural move. However, the problem comes with all of the chain reactions that happened as a result.
First, and most obvious, is the addition of Sol Campbell and subtraction of Jonás Gutiérrez. One of the reasons that Enrique and Simpson are effective playing "both ways" is the ability of the two wingers to get back and play defense. Jonás in particular has shown a willingness and ability to block (or at the very least, disrupt) crosses into the box. This deficiency was evident on Jonathan Walters' goal. Shane Ferguson, having come on for an injured Jose Enrique, had pushed up the field and so had the rest of the midfield, leaving Fabricio Coloccini to deal with Jermaine Pennant as he crossed the ball. Normally, Colo would be helping in the box, but Sol Campbell was left alone and was completely outmatched.
Another unfortunate byproduct of the 3-5-2 was that the team was rarely on the same page. Two weeks is a lot of time to endure between matches for us fans (and we're in the midst of another two week break right now. Explain to me again why that 4 games in 11 days stretch was necessary?), but it's not enough time on the training ground for players to become familiar with new roles. There were times when the entire "midfield" was stuck ahead of the ball, leaving 3 defenders to deal with a counterattack. This obviously defeats the purpose of the formation, but what else can you expect when as many as 6 or 7 players are playing different positions on the pitch than they're used to?
Okay, formation talk and Cheik Tiote suspension (we'll get to this in a moment) aside, I'm choosing to see this match through rose-colored glasses. I just don't see a lot of reason to panic moving forward, as long as sound personnel decisions are made. Losing 4-0 is bad; there's no way around that. However, I don't believe that the performance of the squad is indicative of what we'll see in the coming weeks. In fact, if the lads can play like they did in the first half again on April 2, I'm confident that they will gain a positive result. Yes, they went into the half down 0-1, but the last 10 minutes of the half saw a flurry of chances that showed what this team can do when they're playing their own game and not worried about Rory Delap's long throws. The reality is that Stoke City played amazing defense. Their back line, led by Danny Higginbotham, shut down Shola Ameobi and Peter Lovenkrands with ease (the latter is quite an easy task of late, I'll grant, but still) and blocked more shots (8) than they made on the offensive end (7).
You're never going to avoid a heart attack if you worry yourself over howlers (Jermaine Pennant's and Ricardo Fuller's goals) and goals scored off of dubious free kicks (Higginbotham's goal) in the Premier League. The lapses in concentration have got to go, but again, they're always going to be there. Though I'm very disappointed with the way several players played this week, I'm more worried about Pardew's selection and chalkboard heroics than anything the players are doing, with a couple of notable exceptions.
On Tiote: I'm extremely disappointed that he'll be missing the next two matches, for obvious reasons, but it was very reactionary of me to suggest that he shouldn't have been on the pitch. You can't hold back players because you're afraid that they might get themselves into trouble with the referee. I thought that the challenge that earned him the yellow was pretty mild, but that's always going to be a booking in Lee Mason's eyes. The larger travesty is that several of his cards leading up to his total of 10 were also dubious in nature. I don't necessarily care that he's going to develop a reputation as a reckless player for garnering yet another suspension...yet. I will start caring when referees stop giving him the benefit of the doubt because of who he is.
I'm going to be harsh with these this week. I'm sure you understand.
Steve Harper - 4. His howler at the start of the second half started the avalanche. Didn't look at all comfortable dealing with Delap's throw-ins and his long passes, normally a strength, were sub-par.
Mike Williamson - 5. Was a threat again on free kicks - sort of. It's disappointing to see him getting out-jumped by shorter attackers week after week.
Sol Campbell - 3. Slow and lumbering. A total of 7 unsuccessful clearances, and 0 successful ones.
Fabricio Coloccini - 7. Secure in possession, even when playing in a new spot. One of the only bright spots to the formation change was that Colo was forced to play back and not try to be something that he isn't.
Danny Simpson - 6. Effective pushing the ball up the field. Not effective crossing (0 for 5). Still, he seemed to relish his role in the system.
Jose Enrique Sanchez - 6. Had he played the whole game, he probably would have gotten a higher grade.
Joey Barton - 5. Apparently prone to having the ball stripped from him. His free kicks haven't been the same since returning. I fear that he's already forgotten his newfound ability to turn the other cheek, and he'll need it against the Wolves.
Cheik Tiote - 7. Stopped several counter-attacks on his own. I don't like him playing so far up the field in transition. He will be missed.
Kevin Nolan - 6. I never thought I'd say this about the captain, but he didn't play with enough fire.
Shola Ameobi - 6. Did everything but finish, and that's always the problem with him. He was a little unlucky with the blocked shots, but it's time to step up and be the #1 striker.
Peter Lovenkrands - 2. Touched the ball 10 times, never closer than 35 yards away from goal. Absolutely unacceptable. I'm giving him a 2 and not a 1 because he didn't directly cause a Stoke goal.
Shane Ferguson (23') - 8. Without a doubt the best player in black and white stripes. I hope his performance gives Alan Pardew the confidence to sit Enrique if he's hurt.
Nile Ranger (61') - 5. Somehow managed to look like a massive improvement over Lovenkrands while not doing much at all. One of these days he's going to make the most of his late game opportunities and force his way into Alan Pardew's heart.
Jonás Gutiérrez (66') - 6. Didn't seem to have a defined role, as he played all over the pitch. I think it worked for him, though I would have liked to see him drift closer to goal.