x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Newcastle hindered by their own progress

Alan Pardew's side are struggling with congestion, injuries, suspension and the weight of expectation this season, writes Richard Jolly.

Alan Pardew signed an eight-year contract to remain as Newcastle United manager in the summer, but his team have struggled to hit the highs of last season. Matthew Lewis / Getty Images
Alan Pardew signed an eight-year contract to remain as Newcastle United manager in the summer, but his team have struggled to hit the highs of last season. Matthew Lewis / Getty Images

Underachievement is profoundly dangerous. But so, too, is overachievement, as Newcastle United can testify.

Last season's surprise success story find themselves the shock strugglers in the current campaign. And one, to a large extent, is the result of the other. Newcastle United are paying the price for their prowess: not so much in the expectations that automatically become inflated, but in the dubious prize for their progress.

Like Liverpool's and Tottenham Hotspur's, theirs has been a campaign disrupted by involvement in the Europa League. Unlike them, they are not accustomed to continental commitments. If an ever-changing team is exhausted - and the concession of late goals in three of their past four games would suggest they are - it is no wonder.

A squad is stretched, the fault lines in the group ever more apparent. Alan Pardew has a strong first XI and then a batch of back-up players. But as the automatic choices have fallen by the wayside - Yohan Cabaye and Steven Taylor to injuries, Cheik Tiote and Fabricio Coloccini to three-match suspensions - it has been particularly punishing that the two most reliable and versatile of the understudies, James Perch and Ryan Taylor, have also been sidelined. Even the seemingly indestructible and eminently adaptable Jonas Gutierrez has missed matches.

"It's been a tough time in terms of the results we have had and the injuries we have suffered," Pardew said.

Instead of the momentum they acquired on their surge ahead of the eventual European champions, Chelsea, in last season's table, Pardew's men have stumbled, stuttered and finally ground to a halt. Their points tally is unchanged for a month, a run of four successive league defeats, their first since the early weeks of their traumatic relegation season in 2008/09.

"It has been a shock for us," Pardew said. "We need to get over that shock pretty quickly."

So Wigan Athletic arrive at St James' Park tonight for a match that has suddenly acquired the status of a six-pointer. The loser will find themselves in the relegation scrap, something many always assumed would be Wigan's lot. Yet when Newcastle kept their prize assets - Cabaye, Tiote, Hatem Ben Arfa, Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse - the predictions were that they would go from strength to strength.

Instead, their inability to sign proven players has hampered them while the two Senegalese strikers have proved a mismatched strike duo, incapable of firing at the same time. Cisse, so prolific since his January signing from Freiburg to the end of last season, has only two league goals, one a fluke, in this campaign.

The theory that luck goes against teams at the bottom is not entirely true. Ba scored with his hand at Reading while Newcastle's only victory in their last nine league games came courtesy of Cisse's back, the forward unwittingly deflecting in Sammy Ameobi's rather more wayward shot for an injury-time winner against West Bromwich Albion.

So their plight could be even worse. Yet Newcastle's good fortune earlier in the season may have been cancelled out when Senegal invoked Fifa's five-day rule nine days ago, meaning Cisse, who had withdrawn from his international squad injured, was unable to face Swansea City.

Words like "what if" can be applied to their season. What if Tiote had not been sent off in a Wear-Tyne derby Newcastle were winning and dominating? What if Pardew had been able to secure his major transfer targets in the summer, players such as the France right-back Mathieu Debuchy? What if Newcastle had not tempted fate by giving the manager and his coaching staff eight-year contracts? Football can seem to object to such plans for stability and growth.

And now Newcastle must focus on the short term. With both Manchester clubs among their next five opponents, the matches with Wigan, Fulham and Queens Park Rangers assume huge importance.

Their descent has to be halted, the swing from boom to bust stopped.

 

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