Newcastle traveled to Villa Park on Sunday and came away with an all too familiar scoreline: Aston Villa 1, Newcastle United 0. Has taking a couple of days to reflect on the match cooled off my anger about this stinker? Follow the jump for the Reasonable Reaction Review on this most recent loss.
I wasn't expecting much out of the Magpies heading into the second meeting between these two teams. Essential personnel Cheik Tiote and Kevin Nolan were missing in action (and let's be completely fair, their absence was their own doing), while #1 by default striker Shola Ameobi woke up on Sunday morning with a bum knee. Hoping for more than one goal was always a fool's errand, and apparently so was hoping for any kind of cohesion between the units.
Whatever chemistry might have existed among the eleven players on the field was challenged by Alan Pardew's apparent insistence on implementing some sort of pseudo-Total Football system. Pardew will lean on the excuse that he was limited in the players he could select (did he ever - BBC Sport), and the point is well taken, but it's still his responsibility to place the players in the best position to succeed, and in that he failed. There should be no reason that arguably the most consistent defender on the squad should be playing in the midfield when there are viable midfielders available, and there should be no reason that I should once again be opening one of these features with a discussion of Pardew's newest failed formation experiment. Alan implicitly admitted his own mistake in the second half when he yanked Steven Taylor out of the game following a penalty in the box that wasn't called in favor of Ryan Taylor, pushing Fabricio Coloccini back to the backline. Both defense and midfield should instant improvement, but it was definitely a case of too little, too late, and by that time the entire team had lost their collective minds anyway. (More on that in a moment.) The only way the selection can be justified is if you believe that:
Coloccini in midfield + STaylor at fullback > RTaylor in midfield + Colo at fullback
Even in a vacuum, that's a shaky proposition at best, and we all know that football isn't played in a vacuum, but that intangibles like chemistry and continuity must be respected. No, Coloccini didn't look totally lost out there, but that's not the point. By making the switch, Pardew weakened his lineup at two positions, which shouldn't be acceptable even when everybody is healthy and nobody is suspended.
Speaking of suspensions, one absence in particular necessitated a change at captain. I'm convinced that in 99% of cases, the captain's armband is nothing more than a ceremonial piece of fabric having little to do with how a team performs. You could not find a person that cared less than I did when the English media seized on the captaincy "controversy" with the Three Lions a few weeks ago. I still don't believe that it matters which guy has to shake hands with the match official before kickoff, but there was something about Joey Barton's role as the most experienced man on the pitch that caused several of the younger players to follow his lead when he reverted to "Jackwagon Joey Barton Mode" this week. (I'm obviously being very generous here.)
Barton has behaved himself this year, and of course we have to speak in relative terms, because you don't praise a player for his restraint as he punches another man on the pitch unless there's a dark history there. This week, though, he decided that he would run his mouth in the media about just about anything, really, and then on the pitch seemed determined to be the floppingest footballer not currently playing for an Italian side. His incessant chirping when it came to Stuart Atwell was incredibly annoying, even to a Newcastle fan, and I thought there was no excuse for his outburst following his foul of Ashley Young.
I've rewatched the play in question several times, and I still don't understand what Joey's beef with the call was. It further baffles me that Alan Pardew came out in the media and questioned Atwell on this point. (Yahoo!) I'm not going to defend Young as a straight-up player, and it's true that he does spend quite a bit of time on the ground for little reason at all, but that tackle by Barton is a foul every time.
What makes me the most angry is that following the play, the entire squad moped around like Strong Sad as if it was their God-given right to do so. The energy level sank and the rest of the half, if not the game, was played with a level of disinterest that I haven't seen from a top-flight team in quite some time. It's got to be up to the senior players on the pitch, whether they're wearing armbands or not, to shove that attitude aside and keep fighting. For 66+ minutes, this team didn't fight. I'm honestly ready to call this the team's worst performance of the year, and there are unfortunately several serious contenders for that dubious honor. Newcastle had several excuses not to play well, and they took every single one of them. What a shame.
Steve Harper - 6. Made a couple of nice saves, intercepted some crosses, and generally kept the score looking more generous than it ought to have looked. Still, it's concerning that his distribution, normally a strong suit, has fallen off the last few weeks.
Danny Simpson - 6. Gets more comfortable moving forward week by week, but he was caught out of position defensively more than a couple of times this week.
Mike Williamson - 8. Should have been our Man of the Match on further review. He's quietly growing into a trustworthy center back.
Steven Taylor - 4. Got manhandled by James Collins on the goal. Committed a penalty that wasn't called. Inefficient in distribution. Deficient in mobility.
Jose Enrique Sanchez - 7. If the object of this beautiful game was to crossover the defender (in this case, Ashley Young) with a bunch of fancy ball-handling before casually passing off to the man standing three feet away from you, then JE would have scored at least 4 goal-unit-baskets all by himself on Sunday. As it is, skill without utility doesn't actually help win matches.
Joey Barton - 4. He actually played at about a 5 or 6, but I'm penalizing him for transmogrifying into the Joey Barton of old.
Danny Guthrie - 8. The kid was all over the field, and he was efficient in his passing and solid in defense.
Fabricio Coloccini - 6. Did well, considering the circumstances, but he became invisible at times.
Jonás Gutiérrez - 7. Extremely confident in ballhandling, made several defenders look foolish only to give the ball away on a simple pass. Completed 0 of 4 crosses and looked even worse than that in that department. Still, he was a net positive and one of the lone bright spots.
Nile Ranger - 5. He made me look foolish for championing his cause all this time. Never came close to producing a threat on goal and did his share of diving as well.
Peter Lovenkrands - 6. Abandoned his usual M.O. of making hopeful runs once it became clear that nobody would be able to deliver the ball to him. It's nice to know he can make adjustments in his game, I guess.
Ryan Taylor (63') - 6. A marked improvement over Steven in that he didn't actively screw things up, but he didn't exactly make his mark, either. Had a chance on that final set piece from a spot that he's usually money at.
Shefki Kuqi (83') - INC. He doesn't look lost out there, so that may be enough to get him a start next week if Shola Ameobi is unable to go.
Alan Pardew - 3. His calling card is supposed to be his ability to motivate his players, and for whatever reason, he couldn't do it. Made excuses for the team in the media when he should have taken them to task. Don't get me (re)started on the selection.
Stuart Atwell - 2. Missed an egregious penalty. Lost control of the players and their emotions early on and showed little interest in getting it back. The offside call that shouldn't have been doesn't belong to him, but it doesn't look good, either.
Puma - 4. I want to like the white kit, but is it too much to ask for some black shorts?
Toon Army - 7. I love to hear the singing on the road. It's okay to sing a different song, though. Maybe a few bars of "Get Out of Our Club" next time?