Newcastle Must Solve Their Tactical Conundrum Sooner Rather Than Later


For those of you who with only a modest understanding of tactics (hello, the Redknapp Family!) let me talk you through something. 

The 4-4-2 is the steady and dependable workhorse of the footballing formation farm. It can allow you to remain very compact in your own half or press the opposition high up in theirs, it can allow you to focus your attacks down the flanks whilst still retaining a healthy presence in the middle, and it can allow you to hoof 8,000-yard passes onto the head of a lumbering brute as competently as it lets 7 or 8 Borrower-sized magicians play their own private game of keep-ball. It doesn't do any of these things brilliantly, but it does do them. 

It's essentially just a stop-gap for teams who don't have any real tactical inventiveness or originality of their own, and just want something generic that'll enable them to compete. Like people who get Maori tribal tattoos or wear t-shirts with witty slogans about the opposite sex, in the misguided hope that it'll be an effective substitute for having a personality.

So it was, about halfway through last season, that Newcastle United's chrome domed supremo Alan Pardew looked long into the gums of this particular breed and cast it off to the glue factory. Having tinkered and tailored with how best to set his team out, and more specifically, how to get the most of out of Hatem Ben Arfa, Demba Ba, and his latest acquisition Pappis Cisse, he masterminded a three headed racing stallion which was gallantly and brutally ridden to within 90 minutes of a Champions League place. 

It seemed pretty strange, then, when Newcastle started the first game of the season against Spurs, back on the saddle of the greying, neighing, dependability mule of 4-4-2. Hatem Ben Arfa retreating to wide-right, Jonas Guitierrez moving out to the left, and Ba and Cisse attempting to combine like a more traditional front two. 

The result has been three of the most disjointed and muddled performances seen on Tyneside since Jimmy Nail made an abortive move into dubstep. 

The Senegalese pair, who looked so deadly individually last season, look about as convincing a combination as socks and sandals; Yohan Cabaye, involved in everything good a few months ago, looks woefully cutoff from all the key areas; and even Hatem Ben Arfa, fast becoming the mercurial heartbeat of the side, is unbalancing the play of everyone else with his wandering attempts to get involved in the play. It's a gameplan that simply isn't working. 

Even Alan Pardew's recognised this, shifting back to the 4-3-3 at various points in all of Newcastle's fixtures to date. Unable to fashion anything against Spurs, they changed and went on to win 2-1; being completely overrun by Chelsea, they changed and nearly got themselves back it into the game; trailing to a frankly awful Villa side, they changed and were a latex fingertip away from not taking maximum points in the dying seconds. Whilst it's only a reshuffling of a few players, the difference between the two approaches is staggering. 

So, why are these insipid two banks of four being persisted with? 

Well, much has been made of Demba Ba's goalscoring imbalance last season. He was averaging something in the region of 12 goals a minute before the arrival of Pappis Cisse, and then dropped off the net-rustling radar entirely for the remaining few months, appearing only in TV stills looking like a child being told to put some sweets back on a shelf. 

The only logical reasoning for the baffling dedication to an ineffective gameplan, is that it's being done to try and keep Demba Ba happy.

Reams upon reams of newspaper column space was dedicated to listing the number of clubs who's allegedly “activated his release clause” over this summer, but ultimately his decision to remain on Tyneside was his to make. A picture is starting to be painted of a player seeking reassurances from his manager over where on the field he'd be deployed, and that manager now doing his absolute best to honour those vows. Even if it's to the detriment to the rest of the team. 

Alan Pardew's task is now to either a) find a way to make the current style of play bear fruit, or b) convince Demba Ba that taking on full backs and closing down midfielders is just as much fun as scoring goals.

The problem with the former is that it probably involves taking the technically spectacular but positionally unruly Hatem Ben Arfa out of the side, and replacing him with someone who's more at home in the midfield. If he thinks explaining the latter might be difficult, try explaining to hundreds of thousands of fans that the solution is to sacrifice the only player who's given them anything to applaud thus far.

That's like trying to make your wife look more attractive by having her show considerably less flesh – some people will see the appeal, but it's going to be a hard sell in the pub.