Newcastle United host Swansea City Saturday in a battle of currently mid-table teams fighting runs of bad form. Last time these teams met, the Toon defeated the Swans in Wales 2-0, thanks to a brace from Papiss Cisse. The central defenders in that match for Newcastle were Mike Williamson and James Perch, so don't be too discouraged by the injury report. That report, plus an attempt at tactical discussion, make up this match preview.
One newspaper said Newcastle were decimated by injuries, but that's not really true - the squad hasn't lost one-tenth of its members (said the pedantic blogger). Actually, it's worse. As many as 8 players are out or suspected out this week. Fabricio Coloccini will continue to serve out his suspension. Jonas Gutierrez is out, even though we still don't know for how long. Yohan Cabaye left his international friendly this week with a groin injury, and he has been ruled out as well. [NUFC Official Site] You can read all the gory details here, but a tiff between Newcastle and the Senegal national team may mean that Papiss Cisse is ineligible to play. Long-term injuries include Ryan Taylor, Haris Vuckic, James Perch, and perhaps Danny Simpson, who now has gossip rag fodder to contend with that I'll not mention here. If you're looking for good news, Cheik Tiote is back from suspension. Go ahead and make all of your best yellow card jokes. Demba Ba reportedly had shin troubles against West Ham last week but powered through, though he pulled out of Senegal's friendly this week. Barring any unforeseen (or unreported) circumstances, he should play.
For Swansea, the news is less dire, though they'll probably leave Danny Graham on the bench, if he is indeed available. Michu would continue to play the lone striker role in his stead. Defender Chico is a doubt as well, and Garry Monk has been playing at center half in his absence. Goalkeeper Michael Vorm represents perhaps the most significant absence, but his injury is (sort of) a double-edged sword. It was his lack of availability that allowed Tim Krul to wear the gloves for the Oranje mid-week, so if his performance is flat, we know who to blame.
It would have been faster to list who could play
Thanks for the sarcasm, Mr. Heading Writer Guy. If we assume that Cisse will be held out, then we should also probably assume that Alan Pardew will revert to the 4-4-2. The sensible solution (in my mind) is to drop Hatem Ben Arfa back into Yohan Cabaye's spot with Obertan on the right wing and Shola Ameobi up front. We end up with this:
Krul | Anita, STaylor, Williamson, Santon | Obertan, Tiote, Ben Arfa, Ferguson | Ameobi, Ba
I like a central pairing of Tiote and Ben Arfa because it almost forces a ground game. More on that later.
Both teams have it. Newcastle have been struggling in league play, winning only 1 of the last 6, scoring only 1 per game over that span. Unfortunately, that scoring rate is only slightly below their season average (1.09 per). Swansea are in an almost identical rut: 1-3-2, just like Newcastle, and they've scored the same amount and let in just one less (8 vs. 9). Now the teams sit 10th and 11th, looking for a way to distinguish themselves from the riffraff below and make a serious push for European contention. If neither is able to shake off the rust, we could be in for a very ugly game.
Hoofball vs. Tiki-Taka?
If that's the case, it won't be because of the style exhibited by the Jacks, who if you haven't heard play a rather attractive brand of football. So far this season, Newcastle are on the other end of the scale. I don't necessarily follow either Swansea or Stoke City especially close, but when the two meet, the hyperbole is inescapable. Who will win the battle of contrasting styles? I bring this up because NUFC have actually relied on the long ball more than Stoke this season, a fact that would likely surprise people who don't follow the team. Though ugly and hard to watch, hoofball can be an effective strategy, even if certain purists don't want to admit it. The problem is that the Toon don't have the personnel to make it work consistently. This season, Cisse is 11/46 in aerial duels, while Demba Ba is a slightly better 21/57. The consensus best player in this department, Shola Ameobi, is 13/21, but he's only one man. On the other end of the pitch, we have Tim Krul, who is notoriously poor at long distribution. He continues to hoof ball after ball at alarming rates, despite the fact that he has Steven Taylor playing in front of him, who has a 90% pass completion rate this season. It's not working. The team that constantly loses the possession battle (however flawed the stat may be) continues to give possession away willingly.
There is hope, and it comes in the form of Cheik Tiote, who has only played two full matches for the Magpies this season. In both of those games, he was massive. In addition to his defensive responsibilities, this season Tiote has taken on the mantle of creator. We just don't know it because he hasn't played. In the opener against Tottenham Hotspur, Cheik completed 67 of 81 passes. 75 of those were categorized by Opta as "short," and lest you think his total is artificially inflated, a full 50 attempts went forward, and 21 of those were in the attacking third. He spread the wealth, too. Santon found him 12 times, Cabaye 11, and Jonas 10. He provided Ben Arfa possession 11 times and Santon 9. He was everywhere. (I can't get my app to share the chalkboard, or I'd show you.) The same sort of thing happened in the other match where he featured for 90 minutes. In the 2-2 draw with Reading, he was again the main distributor and managed to complete 48 of 63, despite Steve Harper's best efforts to give away possession.
The message is simple: when Tiote doesn't take himself out of the game via silly fouls, he's a force to be reckoned with on both sides of the ball. He has the power to nullify Swansea's patient game, and I believe that he can do it with Ben Arfa at his side.
A slowed down style of play coupled with poor goal-scoring form on the part of both teams leads me to believe this will be a low-scoring affair. I have to believe, however, that each will have plenty of opportunities. Each team is vulnerable, thanks to Vorm's absence on one side and Coloccini's (and, to a lesser extent, Simpson's) on the other. A 1-1 draw seems a likely outcome, and while both Newcastle and Swansea will be looking to distinguish themselves, I imagine they'd also both take a point if offered.