x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

A case for the defence at Newcastle United

After a tough run of fixtures and a growing injury list have put the brakes on their campaign, Mike Ashley should be prompted to buy in January, writes Richard Jolly

Newcastle United had three right-backs and a left-back in their defensive quartet against Norwich City at Carrow Road on Saturday. Norwich City won the match 4-2.
Newcastle United had three right-backs and a left-back in their defensive quartet against Norwich City at Carrow Road on Saturday. Norwich City won the match 4-2.

After a tough run of fixtures and a growing injury list have put the brakes on their campaign, Mike Ashley should be prompted to buy in January, writes Richard Jolly

A right-back, another right-back, a third right-back and a left-back. There was a novel look to Newcastle United's back four in Saturday's 4-2 defeat at Norwich City.

But, rather than some bizarre experiment conducted by Alan Pardew to determine if football teams actually need central defenders, it was an indication of the strain being placed on a slender squad.

The three specialists - Fabricio Coloccini, Steven Taylor and Mike Williamson - are all out injured, for the entire campaign in Taylor's case, leaving a previously frugal side with a soft centre.

It was exploited by Paul Lambert, the Norwich manager, whose decision to recall the strapping Grant Holt and select two strikers, instead of his normal one, enabled his side to capitalise on Newcastle's shortcomings.

It means Newcastle have only claimed one point, albeit a very creditable draw at Manchester United's Old Trafford, from their last four games, although it should be stressed that three were against title contenders.

There is a temptation to brand it a reality check after their superlative start to the season. Except that, despite the supporters' reputation as an excitable bunch, neither the fans nor players were getting carried away.

Pardew certainly remained level-headed during his side's early overachievement.

What the subsequent slide should do, however, is to send a message to Mike Ashley. Retail therapy has been Newcastle's default reaction to setbacks in the past and, as the cost-conscious owner is all too aware, it is not always the answer.

But prudent recruitment is a different matter.

A lack of depth in the squad is increasingly apparent and the need for reinforcements ever more obvious.

Because even at the high watermark of their season, the reliance on the first 11 was evident. Newcastle probably peaked in a 3-1 win at Stoke City, but a glance at the two benches that night told a tale.

Stoke's, containing Thomas Sorensen, Robert Huth, Matthew Upson, Dean Whitehead, Wilson Palacios, Kenwyne Jones and Cameron Jerome, had experience and involved expenditure.

Newcastle's, with Rob Elliot, Davide Santon, James Perch, Dan Gosling, Sylvain Marveaux, Hatem Ben Arfa and Sammy Ameobi, was much cheaper and inferior.

Continuity and teamwork helped propel them into the upper reaches of the division, but the hardy band of ever-presents diminishes by the week.

Their understudies are falling by the wayside, too: Danny Guthrie, a fine deputy for the absent Cheik Tiote, is sidelined for six weeks; the man who stood in for him, Dan Gosling, faces a three-match ban after his dismissal at Carrow Road; the winger Marveaux's hip problem renders him a long-term absentee.

Moreover, two of the pillars of the side will depart in January; not, barring the exorbitant offers that Ashley will always accept, permanently, but for a significant portion of the campaign. The Ivorian enforcer Tiote and the Senegalese scorer Demba Ba will head for the African Cup of Nations, potentially removing each for a month.

Previous departures have benefited Newcastle, a club who seem stronger for the summer exits of high earners and who have rallied since Andy Carroll's £35 million (Dh200.5m) move to Liverpool.

Their inability to recruit a striker on transfer deadline day was embarrassing at the time, but Ba has ensured it has rarely been an issue.

Yet with every defeat and every injury, their slender resources become more pertinent. Results have given Ashley respite from the critics on Tyneside - even renaming St James' Park the Sports Direct Arena was less controversial than it might have been, courtesy of the team's success - but a lack of investment in January would prompt renewed condemnation.

A defender of a higher calibre than the limited Perch, the odd-job man who is best suited to the lower leagues, would help, along with another midfielder, while the long-awaited forward would help convince that Ashley's ambition stretches beyond cut-price survival.

All could prevent makeshift sides becoming the norm. As it is, Saturday at Norwich, Newcastle's first defeat against a side beneath them, has the appearance of a one-off. But the responsibility of ensuring it is lies more with Ashley than Pardew.

*****

At a managers' meeting in 2005, Aston Villa's David O'Leary approached Paul Jewell, in charge of newly-promoted Wigan Athletic.

"I hope you stay up," said the supercilious Irishman. "I hope you do," replied the chirpy Merseysider. Jewell's Wigan duly beat O'Leary's team home and away, reached the Carling Cup final and finished 10th, six places above Villa.

Their exchange came to mind when Roy Hodgson suggested Wigan's summer attempts to sign Peter Odemwingie was like him trying to take Lionel Messi to West Bromwich Albion.

What happened next had a certain inevitability. Wigan's 2-1 win at the Hawthorns lifted them out of the relegation zone, albeit for 24 hours, and showed again that patronising perhaps the division's smallest club can backfire.

One of the reasons they are now in their seventh successive season in the top flight is that Wigan can confound expectations. It is something Roberto Martinez's side have showed in successive away games, coming from behind to beat first Sunderland and then West Brom.

While few expect Albion to go down and most still tip Wigan for Championship football, Hodgson's comments could appear still more misplaced by the end of the campaign.

sports@thenational.ae