Papiss Cisse was an instant hero when he joined Newcastle United in the middle of the magical 2011-12 season. After failing the previous summer to capture the signature of Modibo Maiga, then of Sochaux, Alan Pardew turned in Cisse's direction, but of course it was too late to get any business done. With his team sitting in the top 7 after sustaining an 11-game unbeaten streak to start the season, Pardew was eventually able to convince SC Freiburg to part ways with their goal-every-other-match striker for a mere £10 million (officially unreported) while he was away at the Africa Cup of Nations in January.
Cisse was given the #9 shirt straight away, and on his debut he scored the winning goal against Aston Villa, with Senegal teammate Demba Ba tallying the first. It was to be the beginning of a beautiful partnership. Indeed, the two had a natural chemistry, and Cisse was the primary benefactor. Ba had begun the season scoring at a blistering pace, netting two hat tricks and 15 total goals prior to leaving for the AFCON. The opener he scored in the Villa match would be his last of the season, and Cisse would pick up the mantle from there. Ba's scoring drought in the second half of the season is often attributed to his new role in the formation; instead of playing in the familiar #9 role, he was stuck on the left side of the 4-3-3. A run of less-than-stellar form and simple regression to the mean were surely factors as well, but the fact was that somebody had to step aside to make room for the other, and Cisse was the chosen one. Ba certainly made himself useful, playing further back in the formation than he would have otherwise and contributing some beautiful assists, but the damage was done. He maybe didn't handle his exit to Chelsea one year after Cisse's arrival as gracefully as he could or should have, but to his credit, he didn't blame the system, even if it was the problem.
Ba's departure left a hole that the club has now temporarily plugged in the form of Loic Remy, but at the time, it wasn't cause for alarm. How could it be, with Cisse still wearing black and white? In his first 14 matches with Newcastle, he scored 13 times. It was an unsustainable scoring rate, but Newcastle fans didn't care. He could do this:
As one might expect, Cisse came back down to earth in 2012-13. Newcastle were now in the Europa League and having to deal with extra fixtures without the benefit of investing in the squad, having decided to basically stand pat over the summer. Ba's form came back, as he scored 13 goals in 20 matches prior to his defection, but Cisse never really got it going. In all, his goal total in all competitions matched that of the previous season, only it took him 33 more appearances to get there. As Newcastle struggled to find the link between the midfield and front line, they began to rely more and more on the long ball, leading the league in that category. Cisse began to try creating chances by making speculative runs off the back shoulder of the defender, and as a result he was found guilty of being in an offside position multiple times each game. There were times he was wrongly flagged offside, for sure, but when you're not scoring, the narrative ignores your bad luck and instead focuses on your inadequacies (just ask Christian Benteke).
The start of the current season was a bumpy one for Cisse. It started with a delayed start to the preseason for him, as he protested Newcastle's new shirt sponsor, Wonga, on religious grounds. He eventually relented and returned to the club, perhaps in the bad graces of team ownership, but said all of the right things about getting ready to play and score goals.
The team now sit in fifth place, exactly where they finished following Cisse's magical ride, but they haven't needed his help to get there. The midfielders are in much better form, the long ball tactic appears to have been left behind, and Cisse still hasn't benefitted, scoring just once thus far, and that one coming in cup play. Pardew appears to have adapted his team selection strategy, preferring in-form players over ostensibly superior ones. Of late, the #9 shirt has been relegated to a bench player, and Newcastle are still winning.
One could easily conclude (and many tabloids have) that Cisse is a lock to leave in January. A player of his talent would certainly prefer to play regularly and in a shirt that doesn't violate his convictions, right? So far, he's saying all the right things from a Newcastle perspective, which is more than we could say about Ba at this time last season. It remains to be seen whether or not he will stick by his comments if and when a bid comes in, but until then, NUFC can and should operate as if he will be staying around long-term.
We can debate the wisdom of looking ahead to the next season in early December until we're blue in the face, but that's precisely what Alan Pardew is doing. Newcastle's fifth place status apparently has him feeling nostalgic for the Europa League, and he's already complaining about the tired bodies his team will have if forced to play with quick turnarounds in the future. The season is only 1/3 of the way finished, but if Pardew is in fact looking ahead, he should think about entering a season with European competition with a deeper squad than he did the last time around. Add to that that Cisse's value is just about as low as it's ever been, and now we've got plenty of reasons not to sell.
The most important one, however, is this: Newcastle need Cisse to start scoring. They've taken the most shots from outside of the box in the Premier League, and so far, they've been getting away with it. It's the new "Rely on Ba and/or Cisse to go on an other-worldly scoring run" strategem. The process is not good, but the results are, and that may be the Toon's death knell when it comes time to make decisions next month.
It's likely that Papiss Cisse will be once again named to the bench again when the lineups for the Swansea City match are released later today. As a Newcastle fan who wants to see them win right now, I hope Shola Ameobi scores three hat tricks in the first half. As a Newcastle fan who wants to see the team win now and in the future, I hope that Cisse is given an opportunity to play, and that's it's more than just 15 minutes when the result has already been decided. As strange as it sounds, he represents the team's best chance at a sustainable run of form.