It wasn't supposed to be like this. Well, it was at least not supposed to be this bad. With two strikers in the squad who can bang in the goals, a talented midfielder capable of getting them the ball and a wing/forward who was increasingly providing the scintillating moments of breathtaking skill that had been hoped from him our attack looked to be in tremendous shape in front of a solid enough defense marshaled by the newly minted Dutch No. 1. Aside from the specter of paper-thin squad depth, it looked set up for a club in ascendance to have a solid follow-up to a special sophomore season back in the Premier League.
In the yin and yang of sports, it seemed certain that we would have a worse time with injury this season than we did last; indeed it was plain to see at the conclusion of the preseason that this would be the case as many starting XI players were already nursing worrying injuries. As I've mentioned before, however, we have not been forced to play any player significant time that had not been a solid contributor to last season's success. Even with the injuries, we should not have seen the wheels to come off to this extent. Certainly squad depth and injury has affected the squad, but cannot hold full blame for our terrible form in the first 16 matches.
The 2011-12 Premier League season for Newcastle was built on a solid foundation in the form of an 11-match unbeaten run to start the season. A disproportionate 25 of Newcastle's 64 total points in the season came in those first 11 matches. The hallmarks of that run as well as subsequent periods of success included opportune offense (either in the form of Demba Ba or Papiss Cisse) and defending like our hair was on fire. If luck was part of the equation, it was luck born of tremendous effort and play. Following their tremendous early season form, the defense would end up far from impervious, but there was indication of making luck for the club - you may remember Steven Taylor's back-to-back 5 block games, #SimmoOffTheLine and other positional, non-luck related factors that created an amount of Newcastle's "luck" last season. Of course, at times those efforts would backfire - see Chicharito's rebound goal in the 1-1 draw at Old Trafford. By and large, however, there was a distinct lack of inexplicable "luck". Whether it was superior tactics (see City, Stoke) or superior effort or play (see first 11 matches), very little of Newcastle's success could be attributable to luck... which brings me to an interview with Danny Simpson that I read yesterday morning.
"The way that we are performing and the effort we put in shows that it is just bad luck. We have the players - it's not like we are going out and getting beat. We actually are doing all right and have been unlucky. We are coming off the pitch feeling unlucky rather than angry we didn't perform. Take away the Southampton game, since then I think we've been doing well it just hasn't fell for us."
I just... I don't even...sigh.
This quote belies the sort of attitude toward this season that begets just what it has begotten. These players should be leaving the field angry that they didn't perform. We are not losing matches out of poor luck. We're flat getting played off the pitch, and the lack of emotional response is troubling. The lack of tactical nuance is troubling. The high emotion and motivation that we saw last year is just... vanished. We're hearing precious little about "team spirit" this year. We're hearing very little gushing praise from Alan Pardew about how the lads are going about their preparations and matches. It shows on the pitch.
At the end of the 2011-12 season, we were playing a 4-3-3 formation that produced a very attractive brand of football on the pitch, if not necessarily better on-pitch results, and an unhappy Demba Ba playing out of position on the left side of the front 3. It can be safely assumed that talks were held between the player/player's reps and the club regarding the player's unhappiness at that situation, and it can be safely assumed that these talks worked out favorably for the player. Pardew's stubborn adherence to a 4-4-2 formation to keep Demba happy is an easy conclusion to make. It doesn't, however, solely account for how poor we've looked on the pitch. A certain lack of tactical nous in the formation and attack was absent during the large amount of time that we played 4-4-2 last year. The discomfort that our players are exhibiting with the ball at their feet was absent last season. At the end of the day, there is something endemic about the funk around this club, and it needs to be identified and dealt with. It needs to create emotion within the club. Dealing with it in the most Pollyanna way of "it's alright, mate... we're just unlucky" is absolutely the worst way to try to break out of this malaise, and if it continues to be the attitude the club takes, we could very easily be stuck in another, if unexpected, battle for our Premier League lives.