As the season approached, there was quite a bit of anxiety about Newcastle United’s prospects for the season. The club finished midtable in the previous season, dropping from 9th to 12th position after blowing a 3-0 lead at home to West Brom on the last day, but the offseason was a serious rollercoaster. The team’s captain and 2010-11 leading scorer, midfielder Kevin Nolan, couldn’t agree on a contract and was sent off to newly-relegated West Ham. After a few poor showings in a US tour, the side sent popular left back Jose Enrique to Liverpool without securing a replacement. Talk of a relegation fight was rampant, and the pundits sneered at the side’s chances. Not long into the season Joey Barton was sent to QPR on a free after proving to be too much of a distraction. There were also serious doubts about manager Alan Pardew.
But here we are, 10 games in, and Newcastle is alone in 3rd position, unbeaten in the league with the best defensive record in the top four divisions, and the supporters at Saint James’ Park sing “Alan Pardew’s Black and White Army.” How did this happen?
It’s really simple: the side has been improved in all phases of the game.
Goalkeeping: Steve Harper waited a long time to become Newcastle’s number one, but due to injury young Dutch keeper Tim Krul has taken over as Alan Pardew’s first choice. Krul has been marvelous, and although he is prone to a rough patch or two, he has become a confident force in the box.
Defense: The improvement in defense is both in personnel and in tactics. Steven Taylor has returned from long-term injury, and he has been a huge improvement over Mike Williamson. The partnership with new captain Fab Coloccini has been a real force in the back. Pardew has chosen to play Ryan Taylor at left-back in Enrique’s place. Taylor, whose best position is right-sided midfield, has had some experience playing full back, but not on the left. Pardew has chosen to keep midfielder Jonas Gutierrez in a more defensive position to assist Taylor. Jonas played defense for Argentina in last year’s World Cup, and he has proved an asset on defense as well as offense this year. Part of the reason for this choice is Ryan Taylor’s ability on free kicks, which have provided two goals in all competitions this year, including the winner at Sunderland. The results have been staggering – only 8 goals have been allowed in 10 games.
Midfield: Nolan and Barton were popular players on Tyneside, but their replacements have been more than adequate. Johan Cabaye has been everything Nolan wasn’t in the center of the pitch. He has more pace, he’s much more creative, and he has the ability to score from long range. Similarly, new right wing Gabriel Obertan has provided pace and creativity and width, and has been as much a help on defense as Jonas on the other side. With more help on the flanks, and a more stable center half pairing, Cheick Tiote hasn’t had to foul as much and has not had the booking problem he did last season. Tactically, the midfielders can take a more defensive posture because the extra pace in midfield has brought the counter-attack back to Newcastle’s offense, something which has been lacking for some time. Further, last season the offense mostly flowed through the left wing interplay of Enrique and Jonas, which left Newcastle caught on defense. The new players Cabaye and Obertan are much better passers than their predecessors, and this has also increased the stability in the back. All this has led to Newcastle routinely dominating in midfield, and as much as Nolan and Barton were two of the bigger names in the 2010-11 side, that just wasn’t the case much last season.
Forwards: Demba Ba has come into the side and has scored 8 goals in 9 league appearances, including 2 hat tricks. He isn’t the imposing figure Andy Carroll was, but it’s hard to argue with that run of success, especially when Carroll is finding it hard to break into Liverpool’s starting XI. Best has shown flashes of brilliance, but his struggles in front of goal have continued.
Bench: Two of the other new players, Italian defender Davide Santon and French midfielder Sylvain Marveaux, look to push the starters in the near future. Dan Gosling at 21 still has a lot of room to grow. And then there’s Hatem Ben Arfa, who looked so promising before the horrific Nigel De Jong incident last year. The main concern so far this season has been keeping the two center halves healthy; while Williamson still injured, James Perch is the only cover until the next transfer window. Even a player like Danny Guthrie has had to find form or be left out of the side entirely. Guthrie has taken this to heart, and with Tiote out with an injury, he deputized last week at defensive midfield and put in a solid performance against Stoke. There seems to be a legitimate cover at every position except central defense, which is not something that could have been said last year.
Owner Mike Ashley has said that he would reinvest the Andy Carroll sale money. He hasn’t done so yet, and what makes the improvement so impressive is that the books virtually balanced over the summer window – a net £3.6 million were spent on a major refit.
Can things go wrong? Absolutely. An injury in central defense would be pretty devastating. There’s still a nagging suspicion that all Newcastle players are for sale at the right price. The club needs to find more goals from the other forwards. But from all accounts the club’s spirits couldn’t be much higher, even after the disappointing loss in the League Cup to Blackburn.
The next month will be a proving ground for Newcastle. After Everton at home, the club will travel to both sides of Manchester in successive weeks, and the following week will host Chelsea. If the club is still in a Champions League position after this stretch, who knows how far Pardew can take Newcastle.