After a six-match winning run in all competitions came to an end against West Ham, Newcastle United boss Alan Pardew now faces a stern test of his tactical acumen.
Despite having a lengthy injury list to contend with throughout the season (summer signings Siem De Jong and Emmanuel Riviere have barely featured) Tuesday night’s trip to Burnley is a completely different challenge for Pardew.
Up until this point, his re-organized team have rescued a previously catastrophic season, with the likes of Ayoze Perez, Paul Dummett and Mehdi Abeid revelling in unexpectedly key roles.
I wrote previously about the importance of Moussa Sissoko’s return to form over the last two months but he will be missing through suspension against Burnley.
Jack Colback will miss the match for the very same reason and those two players had become the heart of the Newcastle midfield, along with Abeid.
Colback and Sissoko have dovetailed brilliantly and their understanding – as well as how their styles of play compliment each other – means Newcastle may have to play a totally different brand of football at Turf Moor.
The return to fitness of Cheick Tiote is meanwhile offset by the short time frame in which Pardew has to reorganize his team, with the winter schedule of the English Premier League now in full swing.
Pardew has enjoyed his finest hours at Newcastle when he has had the opportunity to work with a stable team, giving his players clearly defined roles and relying highly on tactical organization.
Improvisation is not necessarily the English manager’s strongpoint and this is a quality that will now be required.
Could Vurnon Anita return to the centre of the park, despite failing to impress in that position since his move from Dutch football? Both he and Tiote offer a similar mix of style to Sissoko and Colback, but without boasting the same technical and attacking qualities.
The absence of drive in midfield will need to be countered by Pardew, which is why it would be no surprise to see Papiss Cisse play in a two-man front line.
Reverting to a 4-4-2 shape – with Cabella and Aarons in wide positions – would present its own difficulties, however.
Firstly, the 4-3-3 to which Pardew has returned has been instrumental in bringing the best form out in a number of his players.
And with Fabricio Coloccini still absent and Daryl Janmaat potentially missing the Burnley match, a makeshift back four could be severely exposed by a change in shape.
Goalkeeper Tim Krul will also be out until the New Year with an ankle injury, with replacement Rob Elliot not offering the same organizational qualities or presence between the posts. This will further weaken a backline that has depended on stability for clean sheets in recent games.
Casualties in defense might see Remie Streete make his first-team debut and coaxing a good performance out of the 20-year-old could be the factor upon which the game turns for Pardew.
Make no mistake – this is a season-defining match for the Newcastle manager, who could either see opinion begin to turn against him again or score a win that confirms the promise of the recent run of victories.
Perhaps more than tactical adjustments, the recent run of wins was based on Pardew’s ability to give confidence to younger players like Ayoze and Dummett. Streete falls into the same category, here.
The Newcastle boss needs to believe in his ability to do so again if he is to overcome a difficult away trip and avoid losing the momentum that has saved his job and reputation.
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