Last weekend’s win against Manchester United, the first in 41 years for the Geordies at Old Trafford, caps a remarkable run of play for Newcastle, with 5 wins in their last six games including victories over Chelsea, Tottenham, and now Manchester United. Alan Pardew’s team is in 7th place for the time-being and playing with a verve reminiscent of the 2011-12 campaign that saw them finish in 5th place.
One wonders, though, if hardliners in the Toon fanbase will be satisfied. Somewhat remarkably given his performance two seasons ago, there is a fairly widespread view amongst Newcastle fans that Pardew is tactically unsophisticated and, at least until this recent spell of success, was running the team into the ground. They point not to 2011-12, but instead to the 12th place finish in 2012-13 and the poor start to this season. The strength of this anger can be seen in the following video, which also catches much of the quality of the criticism aimed at Pardew.
Clearly, this is a bit unfair. Much of this criticism is of the “he should be playing my favorite player more” variety. Not one to find and stick with a best eleven, Pardew frequently changes line-up and formation not only between games, but often within them. The question is whether these changes are tactically astute management, necessary responses to injuries and vagaries of form, or purposeless and probably counter-productive tinkering. When Newcastle is at their best, as in their recent run and two seasons ago, it certainly seems the first. During the long and frustrating run of last season through the worrisome opening to this one, the latter two explanations seemed more probable. Let’s take a look at what Pardew has done over this most recent run, culminating in the win at Old Trafford, and then step back to think about how much this run actually tells us about Pardew’s Newcastle.
Coming out of the October international break this year, Newcastle had featured seven different starting line-ups in their opening eight games, the one exception being a 4-4-2 with Papiss Demba Cissé and Shola Ameobi up top that tied West Ham and defeated Fulham in the 2nd and 3rd games of the season. Most of these formations featured the now hapless Cissé as Newcastle’s central attacker despite the arrival of Loïc Rémy, and the strong sense was that Pardew was struggling to organize his team rather than capitalizing on their flexibility. Injuries also played some role, though probably not as much as they had in the previous season, when Newcastle “led” the league in injuries (a season during which they were also competing in the Europa League). The team and fanbase were also struggling with the remarkable appoint Joe Kinnear (if you haven’t heard his talkSPORT interview, it’s worth a listen), so you can understand why they were in a foul mood.
Starting against Liverpool, Pardew turned out a 4-2-3-1 with Hatem Ben Arfa nominally up top, though he and Rémy interchanged frequently. This worked well in the first half, allowing Newcastle to disrupt Liverpool’s typical dominance of the middle of the pitch until Yanga-Mbiwa’s red card forced Pardew into at 4-4-1 reshuffle that regained the lead and nearly held onto the win before conceding a late equalizer to Daniel Sturridge. (For more on the game, see Liverpool fan Gabriel Jones’s analysis).
Pardew used the same starting XI (with the exception of the suspended Frenchman) in the following derby game against Sunderland, but less than 20′ in and having conceded a 5′ goal, Pardew changed things around, shifting Rémy permanently up top and moving Sissoko out left to allow Ben Arfa to create from the middle. Halftime saw a further change, with Cissé replacing Ben Arfa and moving up top supported by Rémy in a formation that straddled the previous 4-2-3-1 and an outright 4-4-1-1. A late Borini goal, though, gave Sunderland the win and while in retrospect this game suggests Pardew moving toward November’s highly successful formation, it did not look that way at the time.
Shola Ameobi had replaced Rémy in the 70′ of the derby, and he returned up top alongside Rémy against Chelsea to start off a remarkable run through November and into December. In all likelihood, Pardew’s decision was driven less by the desire to shift from one striker to two than by a resolve to finally break with the two remaining key attacking players of his earlier tenure: Papiss Cissé and Hatem Ben Arfa (the departed Demba Ba was the other). Shola Ameobi had not been significantly more productive than those two, but he was a more disciplined and reliable player, so that even in a 4-4-2 the team was better prepared to weather the storm. Though second half changes, particularly the introduction of Vurnon Anita to the midfield, were critical to Newcastle’s win, Pardew stuck with effectively the same starting formation for the next four games (the line-up above did not arrive immediately, as Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa substituted first for the injured Fabricio Coloccini and then for the suspended Mathieu Debuchy). Anita continued to play a role as a second half substitute, as did Cissé, and frequently Pardew would reconfigure the team to a 4-2-3-1 at some point in the second half to protect a lead.
Though Newcastle looked ragged in the 2nd half against Norwich City, a strong performance against West Brom continued a four game winning streak. An away loss to Swansea ended the streak, but Newcastle threatened in the second half, and Pardew’s change in approach against Manchester United was probably a reaction to Moyes’s team rather than to the previous loss.
Regular second half midfield substitute Vurnon Anita replaced Shola Ameobi in the starting XI, playing alongside Tiote to free Cabaye up to play in a more advanced role in a 4-2-3-1. The shift was clearly designed to shore up the midfield defensively, and much of the analysis of the game has focused, understandably, on Newcastle’s dominance of possession. But Pardew also seemed to have a clear plan for the flanks. When Nani and Januzaj lined up opposite to their expected sides, Sissoko and Gouffran also swapped sides 10′ into the game, Sissoko lining up with Januzaj. Manchester United’s wings started the second half on the opposite flanks, and Newcastle’s wings also swapped sides in response. Gouffran tended to pinch in and join Newcastle’s attack, while Sissoko played a wider and deeper role. Ben Arfa replaced Gouffran early in the second half, but when Moyes brought on Valencia late to add attacking thrust from the fullback down that flank, Sissoko and Ben Arfa switched sides to offer a more disciplined defense.
This historic win for Newcastle has been much covered (the reports from Zonal Marking and Outside of the Boot are good places to start), and it certainly strengthens the sense that Pardew is not flailing blindly about in his game management. Newcastle were at one point 5th in the table, and they still sit at 7th going into today’s game. So has Pardew answered the critics?
Undoubtedly, this recent run has demonstrated that his team’s performance two seasons ago was not entirely a fluke. On the other hand, it’s worth noting that both of Newcastle strong runs under his guidance have coincided with forwards on remarkable–and probably unsustainable–runs of form: first Cissé and then Ba in 2011-12, and now Rémy (who is almost certainly a better prospect than the other two, but is unlikely to remain quite as effective as he has been thus far). Pardew may deserve credit for drawing this form out of his strikers, but if so he must also bear the blame for not helping them to maintain a sustainable level going forward (Ben Arfa had a reputation for streakiness prior to arriving at Newcastle, but he too might be put into this category). Equally likely, if unsettling for most sports fans, is the very real possibility that these runs are simply a matter of luck. If so, Pardew deserves credit for seizing luck by the forelock, but this view also requires the recognition that his Newcastle is not, in fact, a top six team. My own suspicion is that Pardew is in fact a tactically astute manager, but that neither he nor his team are as good as their current run suggests.