Newcastle United have started the season indifferently with a win, a draw and a loss; finding themselves in 10th place heading into the two week International break. The draw at home to Aston Villa has been the only disappointing result but all three matches so far have seen disappointing performances from the majority of the starting 11. One thing causing some ire among some Toon supporters is manager Alan Pardew’s insistence on fielding a 4-4-2 formation when Newcastle had much success in the back-end of last season with a fluid 4-3-3/4-2-3-1.
Although some see it as clunky and old-fashioned (especially with a back 3 becoming more popular) 4-4-2 can still be very effective. It requires, however, your central midfield pairing to be firing on all cylinders. Back at the start of January the Magpies bossed Manchester United at St James’s Park and ran out 3-0 winners thanks mainly to the form of Cheick Tiote and Yohan Cabaye, who smothered both Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick out of the game with a high-press and high-tempo defence. When you lose your source of strength in midfield (for Newcastle the rampaging and currently injured Tiote) you can find yourself struggling to contain the opposition and outfought or simply out-passed.
Some see this as a risk worth taking though because 4-4-2 gives you double the target men up front for long balls over the midfield which worked against Manchester United’s aerially challenged back 2 (Jones and Ferdinand) but thanks to Tottenham’s 2 holding midfielders Sandro and Livermore, Newcastle’s attack was left isolated and unsupported so we were reduced to long hopeful balls up front which Gallas and Kaboul dealt with easily. Pardew changed to 4-3-3 at half time with Ba pushed out to the left, Gutierrez tucked in and Ben Arfa, Newcastle’s livewire, pushed higher up (where he eventually won the penalty). The team performance was notably better; Tiote was allowed to drop deeper and therefore pick up Sigurdsson and Ba actually scored from his left-sided position.
4-4-2 can look very weak when either outnumbered (against Tottenham) or even outmaneuvered; Newcastle struggled to deal with Aston Villa’s midfield diamond in the first half on Saturday and Pardew had to drop Ba deeper, almost into the midfield therefore leaving Cisse the only real target up front and whether it’s the effects of Ramadan or just poor form but last season’s goal-scoring revelation looked uninterested and sluggish; failing to win many aerial challenges and not even holding the ball up well for his team.
The key to both formations is actually Jonas Gutierrez. The Argentinean is maligned by some for his lack of final product (except versus Wolves it seems) but lauded by many for his workman-like approach and versatility. When Newcastle play 4-4-2, Guti is often on the left wing but his extraordinary defensive work allows the full-back to have more attacking impetus (he had a terrific relationship with Jose Enrique). However if our central midfielders are getting dominated his lack of positional awareness sees him dragged inside leaving our left back (the ridiculously attack-minded Davide Santon) exposed. Not only this but Santon is a right-footed left back meaning whenever he does overlap and get into a promising position for a cross he has to cut back onto his right foot which can allow a defense to regroup and pick up the strikers. In 4-4-2 we get very little service from the left hand side (bar some electrifying finishing by Cisse as demonstrated vs Norwich, Chelsea and Villa last season)
With the 4-3-3 last season Pardew playing Jonas almost as a defensive midfielder alongside Tiote with Cabaye as a more advanced playmaker. The partnership worked surprisingly well; whereas Tiote is enthusiastic with regards to conceding fouls Gutierrez is a genius at drawing them (he was the most fouled player in the Premier League last season) and the two combined well to break down opposition attacks at both Swansea and West Brom away. Playing centrally means he’s unable to cover the fullback and, although he’ll run himself into the ground, he saw the game against Wigan last season completely pass him by and Victor Moses pounced on Danny Simpson, giving him a torrid time for the first 30 minutes until Newcastle could react to Martinez’s 3-4-3, but by then it was too late and Newcastle went on to lose 4-0.
Newcastle’s biggest signing of the summer was Ajax midfielder Vurnon Anita for £6.7 million. Though lacking in physicality he’s a great ball-winner thanks to his positional awareness and a very solid passer of the ball. Against Villa he seemed keen to play long balls despite an apparent lack of success but that seemed to be part of Pardew’s game plan. He deputized competently at right back after Simpson’s hamstring injury and made a couple of good headers at the back post to avert danger. Once he has settled into the rhythm and pace of the English game expect him to accompany Tiote (or even Gael Bigiramana, who looked sharp when he came on at the weekend) in front of the defense (one destroyer and one distributor) whilst Cabaye will once again be given a more forward role to pull the strings and dictate Newcastle’s attacking tempo. By then hopefully the Frenchman will have found both his form and his fitness because he’s been an also-ran in the 3 games so far; looking a shadow of the player who tore Stoke apart at home last season (when Newcastle played 4-3-3).
4-3-3 (or 4-2-3-1, if you will) leaves space for only 1 striker and that appears to have given Alan Pardew a slight headache. He has to choose between compatriots Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba, both of whom showed some world-class form last season, albeit at different times and, more importantly, in different formations. Ba drew the short straw last season and was played almost as a left winger whereas Cisse was the target man and focal point of the attack (hence his mouth-watering goal return). This resulted in Ba’s drop in goals; it wasn’t a lack of form with the front trio all excelling in the dominating performance at West Brom (where Ba could have easily scored 2 goals himself). With last season’s free signing Sylvain Marveaux slowly coming back to match fitness Ba may find himself dropped from the starting 11 entirely or replacing Cisse up top, depending upon form.
Newcastle’s best player of the opening 3 games has been mercurial Frenchman Hatem Ben Arfa who struggled for fitness at the start of his career on Tyneside but has exploded into the starting 11 in the last 8 months and has put in a number of consistent performances. Pardew has ground out the selfishness in his game and also made him more defensively aware. Neither of these has put a dampener on his form though with the 25 year old scoring and creating many chances, seemingly out of nothing. Despite the record of Newcastle’s Senegalese strike-force, Ben Arfa is the real star. Pardew will want to utilize him and harness his ability if the Toon are to come close to repeating last season’s 5th placed finish. Although he wants to play as a number 10 (just off the striker) he’s been placed on the wing on many occasions but can see himself almost marked out of the game (vs Chelsea this season). This is when you want other players to step up into the space afforded them by defenders doubling up on Ben Arfa. Cabaye did this brilliantly away at Swansea last season, using the extra space to pick out 2 killer passes to Cisse who finished with aplomb. Currently no one looks prepared (be it through fitness or form) to take over his defense-destructing mantle.
The international break will hopefully see Cheick Tiote’s return to fitness and a number of players return to form but Newcastle will face a tough challenge away at Everton. Already Fellaini vs Tiote looks to be a key battle in the centre of the park, if the Ivorian is not fit I fear for youngster Bigirimana or utility man James Perch who has deputized at DM before, but never against someone as physical as the Belgian. Everton’s first choice centre backs of Distin and Jagielka are dominant in the air but, as evidenced in the 2-0 loss to West Brom, susceptible to pace so a counter-attacking 4-3-3 might just be what’s required to take all 3 points away at Goodison Park.
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This article was first posted on September 3, 2012