Exploring Newcastle's 1st-half struggles

Mike Hewitt

What can the infamous 4-4 draw with Arsenal in 2011 teach us about the current Newcastle squad?

It's amazing what the human mind remembers - and doesn't. Even in a sport where a non-binary result (i.e. draw) is possible, we tend to remember games as either "good" or "bad." There's little room for nuance in our memories - too much of the brain's real estate is occupied by passwords, appointments, and random facts about dinosaurs to recall the poor offside call that led to a wrongly disallowed goal. In our heads, it's a 2-1 victory. The lads must have played well that day.

Certain matches are more memorable than others, of course. For example, I only need to mention the score 4-4, and every Newcastle supporter in the world knows of what I speak - the epic comeback against Arsenal in February 2011. Down 0-4 after 27 minutes, Newcastle rallied and scored 4 second half goals to steal a point from the Gunners. For them, it's a terrible memory. Never mind that they scored 4 goals in 27 minutes! Likewise, thinking of the game brings a smile to my face, even now. I can't tell you how many times I've gone to Youtube for the express purpose of watching Cheik Tiote's goal from the vantage point of the stands.

But there's still an element of that match that we'd like to (and often do) forget, isn't there? Every comeback requires that the team doing the coming back was at one point on the ropes. NUFC played some shockingly awful football in the first half of that match. Supposedly, Alan Pardew gave a cracker of a halftime speech, motivating the players to go out and stop playing like midgets with two left feet. That apocryphal speech is now the stuff of legend. Any time this Newcastle team finds itself down at the half, we fans comfort ourselves, certain that Pards is in the dressing room making adjustments and pushing buttons and perhaps gazing into the eyes of each of his players, hopeful that his silver fox magic will take hold and spur them on to victory.

But the point is that he's in that position all too often. I hate to speculate about the preparedness of the team, but if the manager is constantly having to make significant halftime adjustments (and/or give heartfelt speeches), something is going wrong in the first half.

So far in this campaign, Newcastle have scored 4 first half goals in 13 games. They're constantly playing from behind. To be honest, I'm not sure what the problem is, or if there is just one cause. I'd wager it has something to do with the lack of goalscorers. This team has 4 players that can be counted on to score: Papiss Cisse, Demba Ba, Hatem Ben Arfa, and Yohan Cabaye. Last season, these four scored 69% of the team's goals. They're the only four that have tallied anything in league play this year. Cabaye is now injured and Cisse is out of form (even when he's allowed to play). That puts tremendous pressure on the other two - as much as we'd like Ba or Ben Arfa to go on a Cisse-like tear and put in 1 a game, it's not a feat that should be counted on. Even if it were, how can the timing of the scoring be dictated?

NUFC found their success last year because they were able to bunker down and hold a lead once they took it. This year, they're failing to find that success because they're not ever taking the lead in the first place. We've all done our fair share of whinging about the long ball tactics of late, but in my opinion that negative style is the symptom, not the cause. When forced to play from behind, the team loses their patience and tries to force the ball to one of their scorers. It works a lot better when there are more scorers to choose from.

So how to go about fixing it? If I may play the part of the broken record, it starts with personnel. The back line is a huge problem and something must be done about it in January, but a new center back won't help just a whole lot if reinforcements for the strikers are not forthcoming as well. Out of favor players such as Nile Ranger and Xisco have been riding the pine for Newcastle in recent weeks, which ought to make the Toon Army very nervous about the chances of improving this dismal scoring record.

To bring it all full circle, the first third of the season hasn't been up to snuff, but we'll all soon forget about all of that if the Toon can hit the comeback trail and turn this into a successful campaign. In order to accomplish that, they'll need to start coming out of the blocks a little faster.

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