x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Magpies' strike pairing spells two for sorrow at Newcastle

Accommodating Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse is doing Newcastle United no favours, writes Jonathan Wilson.

Demba Ba, right, and Papiss Cisse, left, have struggled to combine effectively in Newcastle United's 4-4-2 formation. Richard Lee / Sportimage
Demba Ba, right, and Papiss Cisse, left, have struggled to combine effectively in Newcastle United's 4-4-2 formation. Richard Lee / Sportimage

How quickly football changes. When Alan Pardew signed an eight-year contract at the end of September, it was seen as a rare and welcome sign of stability in football.

Pardew, it seemed, deserved his reward, not only for having led Newcastle United to fifth last season but for having been part of the system that constructed a formidable squad at reasonable cost.

The scouting network, led by Graham Carr, that brought in the likes of Demba Ba, Papiss Cisse, Cheick Tiote and Yohan Cabaye, was held up as a model for others to follow.

It still is, of course. Pardew has not become a bad manager or Carr a bad scout overnight. But since Pardew signed that contract, Newcastle have won just once in the league.

The achievements of last season mean there is no sense of panic but neither does the excuse that the club are struggling to adapt to the demands of combining Europa League and Premier League campaigns seem entirely adequate.

Part of the problem is injuries. Cabaye, in particular, with his combination of grit, effort and quality, has been missed and the fact he will be out until at least February is a major blow.

Fabricio Coloccini's return from suspension has coincided with Steven Taylor suffering a hamstring injury. But two players who are available are also a problem: it has become increasingly apparent that Ba and Cisse struggle to play in the same side and the effort to squeeze both in has led to Newcastle becoming increasingly direct this season.

Cisse arrived in a £10 million (Dh58.5m) deal from Freiburg in Germany last January and made an immediate impact, scoring the winner against Aston Villa on his debut.

He went on to score 13 goals in 14 appearances last season. Ba had already proved a sensation, scoring 15 in 19 games before heading to play for Senegal at the African Cup if Nations in January.

They both had excellent seasons but crucially, not at the same time: Ba also scored on Cisse's debut but that was his last goal last term.

Both would consider themselves centre-forwards and both would look to play through the middle.

They are not exactly the same: Cisse is a more natural leader of the line, somebody who plays tight against the last defender; Ba drops off a little and gets more involved in link play. But they are not that different.

Neither has the hold-up ability to be considered a target man, neither is a schemer in the mould of Peter Beardsley or Kenny Dalglish. They often make the same runs, particularly when the ball is played in from wide.

In the second part of last season, Ba often operated wide on the left in a 4-3-3 formation, but he has made clear he prefers a central role. At the start of this season Cisse was often deployed on the right but he too wants to play in the middle.

That effectively forces Pardew, if he is to play both of them, to use a 4-4-2 system, which means Newcastle are often overrun in midfield.

His solution to that has been to make the midfield four very narrow, to try to counteract opponents who play with three central midfielders, but that in turn means that often the only sparks of creativity come from the brilliant but inconsistent Hatem Ben Arfa, who is himself now injured.

With central areas congested and passing options limited, Newcastle have increasingly gone long. Newcastle have launched 78 long balls this season, 11 more than any other Premier League team and that makes them predictable.

Even playing very direct football, there is an argument that Newcastle are more effective - as they were, say, in the second half at Everton - with Shola Ameobi battering defenders for either Ba or Cisse.

Given their ability and their form last season, it is understandable that Pardew is reluctant to drop either and risk alienating them. But ultimately the team must come first and, at the moment, playing both is getting the best out of neither.

sports@thenational.ae

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