If Newcastle United supporters were hoping the return of the Premier League might help dispel memories of a turbulent summer, they were sadly mistaken. In the final game of the opening round of league fixtures, the Magpies were hammered 4-0 by a rampant Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium. In truth, but for Tim Krul and some wasteful finishing from the Citizens, it would have been a much, much higher scoreline.
Pre-game preparations were not ideal for the North-East outfit, with reports surfacing prior to kick-off that a £10 million bid had been received from Arsenal for midfielder Yohan Cabaye. The bid was rejected as ‘derisory’ by Newcastle, but Cabaye was left out of the squad nonetheless. Speaking to Sky before the game, Alan Pardew was furious when asked about the offer, with the timing of the bid – just hours before a key game – clearly the main source of his frustration.
The Arsenal bid probably was a significant distraction in the build-up, and Pardew did allude to how the side had been preparing for the game with Cabaye as a key component. But did he really have to have him? And can you blame Arsenal or Cabaye for the non-existent defending, the hopeless naivety or the wide-spread indiscipline that we saw from Newcastle last night?
The Toon could have turned up at City, played out of their skin and still lost, such is the quality of Manuel Pellegrini’s side. But the traveling black and white army, whilst harboring slim hopes of picking up some points, would have been expecting defeat. They would have had a keen eye on a few other things however: signs that the team is moving in the right direction, that the players and management had learnt lessons from last season’s disastrous run-in and that everyone at the club is totally committed to the cause with a new campaign in its infancy.
But there was none of that. The same demons that had riddled the Magpies in the tail-end of last season remained prevalent. It was a performance that mirrored the 6-0 and 3-0 defeats at the hands of Liverpool and Sunderland respectively. Understandable perhaps, when you consider Newcastle were the only team not to feature a new signing in their opening day squad.
So, what in particular went wrong? Tactically, Pardew was unbelievably naive, sending his side out in a gung-ho 4-3-3 formation. The midfield was wide open and with Hatem Ben Arfa and Yoan Gouffran pushing high up the pitch, coupled with their point-blank reluctance to track back, both Newcastle full-backs were hopelessly exposed.
Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa operated in an unfamiliar role at left-back and he found himself isolated time and time again against the scintillating Jesus Navas, who was in turn complimented by the late bursts of Pablo Zabaleta. Pardew only saw fit to rectify this once City were 2-0 up, moving Jonas Gutierrez into a more orthodox left-midfield position to offer cover. But his plans were scuppered, as the Argentine limped off with a hamstring injury not long after.
Newcastle toiled and City – as top quality sides do – exposed the gaps that littered their opponents line-up. Cheik Tiote was powerless up against the roaming, infield movement of David Silva and Jesus Navas. Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero also caused no end of problems; able to drop off into space and run in behind with startling ease.
Just to compound the absence of any kind of tactical acumen, Newcastle showcased an unprecedented amount of indiscipline. Mathieu Debuchy was booked for petulantly throwing the ball away, whilst Yanga-Mbiwa picked up a similarly needless booking for a peevish push on Dzeko. Both full-backs were subsequently treading a fine line and it allowed the City wide-men to run riot from a very early stage.
A red card looked imminent, but the fashion it eventually arrived in was surprising. Having been lucky to avoid conceding a penalty seconds earlier, Steven Taylor – a senior figure and a player you expect to lead by example – inexplicably swung an arm at Aguero and was given his marching orders just before half time. It was a mindless act from a player who should be desperate to start the season in a positive manner.
Instead, he dropped his team even further into the mire ahead of a second half which saw City slow their tempo, but continue to drag Newcastle all over the pitch. Yaya Toure scored a super free-kick for the Manchester club, but he was assisted by a defensive wall that was disjointed and cowardly. Two Newcastle players turned their back on the ball, whilst one refused to jump altogether.
There is clearly some work to be done for Newcastle in the two weeks before the transfer window closes. Monday night’s game will not define their season by any means, but there are some areas of the team that require stout reorganisation, whereas some need overhauling altogether. The fans chanting of “spend some f****** money” made their opinions loud and clear on what they feel the best course of action is.
It’s time for Alan Pardew to earn his stripes as a manager and handling the Cabaye transfer will be his immediate priority. Pardew alluded to the fact that the player’s head had been turned, and his exclusion from the squad suggests the Frenchman is pushing for a move. Whatever the outcome, Newcastle cannot afford to let this drag on. The club need to either make it clear they will not entertain any bid for a player who is arguably their most important, or they need to broker a deal quickly that will allow the manager and director of football to spend any incoming funds on strengthening the squad.
But ultimately, it’s the players that were on show against City that will make up the overwhelming majority of the squad this season. It is a group made up of players Pardew has brought into the club, so in no uncertain terms, the responsibility lies with him to galvanize them. He needs to turn this group – his group – into a team again. And even at this early stage of the season, he needs to do it quickly.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter: @MattJFootball