Cheik Tioté is out for the season after reinjuring his knee while on duty with the Ivory Coast at the African Cup of Nations, several sources reported Saturday. For better or for worse, Tioté was basically an automatic pick at holding midfield for Alan Pardew when he wasn't suspended, injured, or playing in Africa. John Carver will now not have that option, and it will be interesting to see the way he sets up his team. Carver has stubbornly continued many of Pardew's policies (insistence on playing Yoan Gouffran and an over-reliance on the long ball, for example), but has also shown willingness to experiment on other fronts (Rémy Cabella being the most notable case).
Indeed, Carver yanked Vurnon Anita, who had been playing in Tioté's stead, last week in favor of moving Moussa Sissoko back in the formation. Anita had put in a couple of poor performances in a row, so the move was seen as a benching, but doesn't necessarily signal permanent intention. Now that Tioté will surely not be entering back into the team, what will Carver's plan for the position be?
He could, of course, go back to Anita. Perhaps he was not 100% or the benching was intended as a message, not a loss of trust. Vurnon is a more proficient passer than Tioté, and when allowed to move forward, is capable of positioning himself and teammates to poke holes in the opposing defense. However, he is not best suited to directing traffic away from the middle of the pitch and to the edges in the way that Cheik is, which is a detriment to a team with such a vulnerable back line.
The next most obvious candidate is Sissoko, since he was the choice on Wednesday. It was not his best game, but that may not necessarily be a result of playing out of position. In fact, it should be noted that he was used to playing a more defensive role before moving to England and scoring a brace against Chelsea within a month of his debut. Sissoko has a tendency to disappear no matter where he is deployed, so this week's match shouldn't be viewed a bellwether, troubling as it was. Still, his best games have come when he is allowed to direct traffic further up the pitch. Holding midfielder might not be the place where he best thrives, though he might be the player best suited for the role. It's a balancing act that Carver will have to mind, especially since Sissoko is widely believed to be departing for greener pastures in the summer.
The other obvious options are all elsewhere on loan or already playing in a slightly different role on a regular basis (Hi, Jack Colback). Short of recalling Gaël Bigirimana or playing somebody well out of position, it looks to be Sissoko or Anita. How Carver sets his lineup against Manchester City this week may show us just how much faith he has in Vurnon Anita.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let's not rule out playing somebody well out of position - it's the Newcastle way, after all. Jonás Gutiérrez was somehow not loaned out this January, despite a well-publicized comeback and no spot for him in the squad. As his career has wound down, he's developed for himself quite the reputation as a no-nonsense, defensively-minded player. Who says he has to play on the wing?
It's a crazy idea that even Football Manager players might scoff at, but I bring it up because it ticks so many boxes on the public relations front, and let's be real: Newcastle United is absolutely a club that could make a decision like this based on how the fans would react. First, Carver is a Geordie that loves to remind fans of that fact. He craves the admiration of the support. Second, Jonás has always been loved by the fans and is one of the few remaining players who stuck with the team following relegation and helped pull them back up. Third, the comeback from cancer is a huge, sappy story. A comeback at the senior level would be immensely popular. Finally, the season is over. They have nothing to play for. Neither relegation nor a place at the European table is a remote possibility.
If ever there were a chance for Jonás Gutiérrez to make a final lap in a Newcastle United shirt, this is it. A wide-open position not obviously held by any single player that Jonás could conceivably play. What a story that would be.
It's probably going to be Vurnon Anita, though.