Aside from the goalkeeper position, it seemed like this would be one of the easiest positional write-ups to draw. At the close of the last year's Premier League, it could have been easily summed up into two words: Cheik Tiote. Graham Carr, however, set out to work his magic on the position, and if Cheik Tiote never felt any pressure for his spot in the starting XI, he may just feel it now.
(This writeup is happening as the Vurnon Anita negotiations are ongoing - for purposes of this discussion I will assume that Mike Ashley and Derek Llambias will be channeling their inner Alec Baldwin and Always Be Closing, resulting in Anita coming to Tyneside.)
Entering his third season with Newcastle United, Cheik Tiote has been the poster boy of the buy low, sell obscenely high business model that Mike Ashley has installed. He is also the most ready evidence that Ashley may not, in fact, be rushing to sell off every attractive asset at the first time of offering. A long-rumored target of Chelsea, Manchester United and several others, it rings encouraging for the Toon Army that as yet, one of the most highly regarded holding midfielders that can break up play as adroitly as he picks up yellow cards still wears the black and white jersey. He also could be the first player that could demonstrate that sometimes you can hold on to a player a year too long.
Additionally, the ACoN has decided to shift its cycle by a year and as nothing in football is immune from the drive of profit they have chosen to hold the cup in consecutive years instead of taking an additional year break. The bright side for Newcastle supporters this year? We will either lose Cheik for the month of January OR Double Demba. It won't be all three this year as the Ivory Coast and Senegal have an upcoming play-off Thunderdome for qualification in this year's edition. Recent history would suggest that the Ivory Coast may be more likely to come through this playoff, so let's operate under the assumption that we will lose Tiote and not Double Demba. If he is injured/gone through international duty... what's next?
Last year, Newcastle United did not have a tailor-made in case of disaster break glass replacement for Cheik Tiote. During the time he was out of the lineup, Danny Guthrie got the lion's share of the starts, but despite his obvious quality he never really brought the same quality to the lineup and never looked to be as locked in to the same page with Yohan Cabaye. (Perhaps an underrated string in the narrative of last season's success is the way Cabaye and Tiote managed to somehow jump immediately into the brilliant partnership that they did) This year, the story is much different.
Vurnon Anita- Diminutive is perhaps the first surface descriptor that you might select when looking at Anita. At 5' 5" and roughly 140 lbs, you're not going to mistake him for Cheik Tiote any time soon. There are some differences in their games, even though they both primarily function as defensive midfielders. Ajax Academy product Anita will likely have a slightly more advanced average pitch position than Tiote. While initially I'll still feel more comfortable defensively speaking with the Ivorian in the lineup, this is not to say that Anita is not a capable ball-winner at the position. Additionally, while Cheik is capable in the passing game, there was no doubt Cabaye held the creative strings in their midfield partnership. If there is anything lost on the ball-winning end of things with Anita, it will likely be regained in the form of increased creativity in ball movement from the CDM position.
Gael Bigirimana- If somehow the Vurnon Anita deal does not get finalized, I don't think any Toon supporter will be headed for the pitchforks and torches. In another Graham Carr masterstroke, the relatively unheralded arrival of Bigi from Coventry could well dwarf the other success stories of the Carr regime by the time it's all said and done. When you put the words "18 year-old" and "Championship" together in a transfer acquisition, you'd be forgiven for assuming the player to be "one for the future". In reality, however, the Burundi international may not be very far off the pace set by Tiote. Preseason is always preseason and things must always be taken with a grain of salt, but if there was a standout performer for Newcastle in this edition of preseason it had to have been Bigirimana.
Realistically, unless there is a major catastrophe (knock wood immediately), the CDM position will be held by one of these three players for the entirety of this season. Ultimately, my advice to you is to enjoy every moment of Cheik Tiote that we get this year. Under the Soccernomics model, we have now not only acquired the ultimate replacement for our favorite destroyer once but twice over now. It may not happen, but with the increasing injuries that Tiote is seeing, it's likely going to be a situation where we will have to shift him on top form to minimize any potential loss in value due to a perceived "injury problem".