A minor edit has been made as I failed to catch a time-sensitive reference that I wrote when I intended to finish this piece two days ago.
Boy oh boy, excitement in the football front at the Olympics today with
Champions Of Forever And Evermore In Every Competition Spain have been put out of the Olympic tournament by Honduras Team GB's women earned a fantastic result over Brazil in front of 70,000+ fans. Undoubtedly, the Spanish Empire will crumble now like a house of cards, just as it did in the 1600s. Maybe. Ehhhh..... That sentence is still funny, so it stays.
That's not the point, though. The point is, yesterday I went through and graded our goalkeepers and defenders on their performances so far this preseason (grading relative to our expectations of the player instead of a gold standard). This was probably the less exciting of the groups of players to do as perhaps the stories of our preseason thus far are the young players who are queuing up behind Yohan Cabaye and Cheik Tiote. From the first installment yesterday:
I thought that at this point in the preseason, it might be a good idea to step back and see exactly where we are on a player by player basis.... and so that's what I've done. I'll start from the back and work forward - and I confess ahead of time a lot of this is going to be based on the Olympiacos and Braga matches save for players that we have small sample size from anyway (read: Gael Bigirimana, Romain Amalfitano, etc.). Given the nature of the preseason matches, it seems easiest to grade the players against what our expectations of them may be instead of to a gold standard of performance, so that is what I've done. Anyway, grading the players - off we go!
And off we go... again!
I had tentatively thought to try to break this out by outside/inside mid but many of the players that are not named Yohan Cabaye or Cheik Tiote saw time in multiple roles across the midfield, so it seems clunky and counter-productive to do so. In no particular order, thoughts and grades for the midfielders:
Yohan Cabaye: Following a freshman season with the Toon that included moments of exceeding class (see: pass to Cisse v. Stoke City) and a disturbing tendency towards ridiculous petulance (See: Adam El Abd or Everton ball boy). Needless to say, we'll be hoping for at least the same amount of brilliance and at least half the petulance. As he just joined back up with the club in Portugal and played a whole 20 minutes, we drop in a very easily assigned: Grade: Incomplete
Hatem Ben Arfa: Finally back in the fold after the assault he suffered at the hands of Nigel de Jong (and subsequently from Roger Espinoza last preseason), he made his way back and Alan Pardew found a way to get the best from him. The 4-3-3 found a way to get HBA on the pitch although he still seems to be at his best going I v XI ... At any rate, he has seen 0 preseason action, so another very easy: Grade: Incomplete
Dan Gosling: It's always a tough thing to slap a "make-or-break" label on a young player's season, but if there was ever a situation for which that label applied, surely it's got to be Dan Gosling's upcoming season. Bearing in mind the guy is still just 22 years old it may be a tad harsh, but with moves over the summer (specifically allowing Danny Guthrie to leave on a free), it looks like the club's intention was to pave his way into the first team. Enough table setting, though- Poaching a goal will not hurt his cause at all and he has looked solid if not spectacular. He's certainly not pressing Cabaye for a starting spot, but probably has done enough to stay as the first CM off the bench... at this point. Grade: B
Jonas Gutierrez: It's been a difficult proposition to grade Jonas on the preseason- Alan Pardew has run him out on the left of defense, left midfield and central midfield (all of which we've seen last year). Fairly or unfairly with regard to this process, it's hard not to factor in Jonas' performances last season when considering him now... but I think I've just about extricated the two. During his time at LB this preseason he was mostly effective but looked maybe a bit disinterested. On the left of midfield he looked very good. In the center of midfield he looked a bit more like the Invisible Man than Spiderman (although he did find himself covering for Ryan Taylor once or twice v. Braga). He's going to be fine and APs experimentation hasn't done him much favor, but for the preseason: Grade: C
Sylvain Marveaux: I've seen a comment or two around on the Twitters indicating that some feel Marveaux has done well enough in the preseason to supplant Jonas in the starting XI. Don't get me wrong, I'm as big a Marveaux fan as there is out there, but I'm not sure I'd go that far yet. He has, for his part, looked every bit as exciting on the ball as he did last year around this time. If you want me to be honest, I'd be just giddy at the idea of a 4-3-3 with a HBA | Cisse | Marveaux front line. If we end up keeping Demba Ba on Tyneside, I don't see that happening, but roll that around in your head a bit. As it is, Sylvain has been impressive in the preseason. I think we'll all still have a little niggling concern about durability in the back of our minds until he proves us wrong, though. I have had high hopes for him and he has certainly delivered so far this year. Grade: A-
Cheik Tiote: It is a good thing that we know who Cheik is as a player. If I were starting from a blank slate and all values at zero, he would have been in the running for my most disappointing player of the preseason. He looked slow and somewhat disinterested v. Braga and a bit like a bull in a china closet. Fortunately, we know that he A) IS a bull in a china closet, B) Is rarely disinterested and C) much faster and smarter than he has showed thus far in preseason. Grade: C-
Gabriel Obertan: If there has been a player from last year's squad that has made a strong move forward this preseason, it may be Gaby Obertan. Literally and figuratively. He has seen some time on the right, on the left in a more forward position and in the "free floating" role that Pardew tried with him a little bit last year. There is a school of thought out there that he would be best deployed behind a central striker, and I could see that easily although it's a square peg round hole proposition in a 4-3-3 formation. The "free roaming" idea is one that may have legs, though, and if he can play it as effectively as he has this preseason, he may just win a few of the boo birds over this season. He's looked better overall this preseason than he has for quite a while. Grade: A-
Sammy Ameobi: I think that we will always want success for the surname Ameobi. Sammy's such a likeable kid, too. Coming off of a knee injury suffered playing for the reserves last mid-season, many eyes were going to be upon him to see how he was going to look upon his return. Good news to those who possessed those eyes: he looks pretty good. This preseason, he has looked smart and able to put pressure on the defense while he hasn't quite looked as poor tracking back as he did last year with the first team. I don't think we'll be seeing any shortage of first team action for Sammy this coming season. Grade: A-
Mehdi Abeid: Mehdi garnered a lot of praise with the reserves last season and must've found himself getting positive enough feedback as he rejected a possible loan away from St. James' Park to get some first-team time. He has spent this preseason showing why he is likely going to refuse a potential loan move away again this year. Although it will not count on his career stat sheet, he did score his first senior squad goal for Newcastle with a very cool, clinical finish off some fine work from Sammy Ameobi and has looked every bit the player that the club were looking for him to be when they brought him in last summer. Grade: A
Gael Bigirimana: At the age of 18, you might have been excused for thinking that Gael was brought in from Coventry as "one for the future". Although he gained a boatload of experience in the Championship last year, it would have been very hard to see him clawing his way through the apparent logjam of talent which is the result of Newcastle's apparent "Buy ALL the central midfielders" transfer policy of late. Well, it was hard to see it being possible- it was not in fact hard to see it happening. In fact it was rather awesome. I believe that Dan Gosling is going to get his chance to plant his flag in the midfield hierarchy, but Mehdi is not far behind... and he may not be the guy to overtake Gosling if and when that happens. Definitely the standout performer for Newcastle this preseason. Grade: A+
Romain Amalfitano: I'm probably guilty of a certain degree of "preconceived notion" kind of attitude when initially trying to assess a player. Amalfitano came to us from the French second division and as such my expectations were fairly low. He has proven my expectations to be ludicrous, however, as he has stepped straight into the side during the preseason and proved himself to be versatile and quite capable. He was given a lot of minutes by Alan Pardew (relatively) and would have seen more time had he not picked up a little knock in warmups prior to one of the matches. He looks more a Cabaye-type player than a Tiote-type (to whom Bigi comperes more directly) and has exhibited ability to work on the right wing effectively as well. I don't think I would be a bit surprised at some point to see an Amalfitano/Bigi central pairing in a competitive match sometime this year for us. Grade: A
Papiss Cisse: I'd have been hoping to just pass Papiss through with an A+ and go on with life. As it turned out, I would have liked to have given him an incomplete instead... but I can't do that either. Perhaps it is a little bit of preseason "You kept me from the Olympics and these matches don't count so ... oops!" kind of thing. He sent his penalty v. Olympiacos to Row Z and did the same with a chance inside the 6-yard box v. Braga... but by the same token, he had the smash off the post sequence in which he looked exactly like he should have. He'll be fine, but his grade suffers because of the standard he established last season. Grade: C-
Demba Ba: There have been multiple reasons to like what we've seen from Demba this preseason. 2 goals scored (although it bears mention that the first v. Monaco involved severe GK disinterest and the second v. Braga came from having his penalty saved) are of course what you want to see out of him, but the real standout moments from him so far this preseason have been some genius almost Cabaye-like passes that he played. Goals, of course, all count the same and his away from goal form being what it is, he gets good marks. Grade: A-
Shola Ameobi: Shola has been given opportunity to make his case for involvement this coming year and showed a bit of the effort and predatory instinct that he showed when he was young. It didn't always end in a goal, but I'll take the ideas and effort that he showed. Some of the shots that he took will end up in the net in the long run. Sammy said that Shloa was injured during some of the time that he seemed disinterested or lethargic last season, so I'll take that at face value and say that a healthy Shola is a useful Shola. He is still the leading European scorer on the squad. Grade: B+
Haris Vuckic: Haris got a lot of his time this preseason as a forward, and I think given the way the young midfielders have performed this preseason, it's going to be at forward that he gets any potential chance to feature. At times, he looked pretty decent in the forward role, at times he looked like he lacked that finisher's instinct (Abeid's finish was clinical... Vuckic spurned a similar chance). Ultimately, I think that Haris is going to get as tired of hearing these words as Toon supporters will get of saying them: The potential is there. I don't think that I'd be completely discouraged by his performance in the forward role, but I don't think that I'd be completely encouraged, either. Grade: B-
Did I get it right? See it differently? Tell me about it below!