By Miles Chambers
Newcastle United have largely had a season to forget. Twelve months ago, the Magpies were in the middle of an unlikely, unforgettable campaign in which they finished fifth - above eventual Champions League victors Chelsea and nestled in a coveted Europa League spot.
But since that peak in May, Alan Pardew’s men have been on a slippery slope that appeared bottomless. After a middling start to the season they slumped majorly and had picked up just seven points in the Premier League out of a possible 39 heading into Tuesday night’s away victory at Aston Villa, which ended up being their first away victory since the start of May 2012.
Part of the reason for Newcastle’s tumble down the table has been their inability to hold on to a lead, and their failure to turn momentum in their favour when they go behind. One of the most repeated statistics once the club go a goal down is that the club are yet to come from behind to win under the ex-Southampton boss’ tenure.
However, Sunderland fans aside, it would be hard to find a supporter that believes the Magpies have a poor team on paper. France internationals, Netherlands stalwarts, Argentina veterans and beyond bolster their first-team ranks. Injuries have often exposed their frailties but, with almost everybody fit, that excuse is starting to hold less weight.
What Newcastle need is an approach that will spark their potential into action instead of leaving it untouched. Many Magpies fans craved winter transfers and they were rewarded handsomely with six additions in January, but where change really has to happen is on the pitch, and playing in a 3-5-1-1 formation would be a great way of instigating this difference.
|FREE-FLOWING TOON ARMY
|Playing with three centre-backs allows Newcastle's attack-minded full-backs more freedom
Davide Santon is an excellent footballer, but he does not seem a natural full-back as his defensive ability is far more restricted than his attacking nous. Shifted higher up the pitch into a left wing-back or left midfield role would let the Italian focus on his strengths. Likewise, January signing Mathieu Debuchy is terrific at galloping up the pitch, and would work easily into a 3-5-1-1 set-up.
French newcomer Massadio Haidara will provide ample cover in Santon’s position, while Shane Ferguson - who has struggled at times on the flank in the past nine months - could yet blossom into a reliable left-sided player. The likes of Ryan Taylor, Danny Simpson and Gabriel Obertan could be considered as alternatives on the right, with each back-up providing different pros and cons to their inclusion.
Former Montpellier skipper Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa was the addition that made the 3-5-1-1 feasible and no longer a fantasy. Mike Williamson and James Perch are good support to have, but they are not the quality of player Pardew will want to be naming week-in, week-out should the club be trying to reach to the European qualification spots in the top tier.
Steven Taylor’s return into the heart of defence as soon as he regained full fitness against Villa demonstrated Pardew’s preference of the lifelong Magpies player. Newcastle captain Fabricio Coloccini has years of experience alongside Taylor, meaning Yanga-Mbiwa would have ample assistance settling into the line-up should Pardew field three centre-backs.
The three best midfielders that Pardew has at his disposal ahead of Saturday’s Chelsea clash provide all the angles his team would require. Vurnon Anita breaks up play in front of the back three and provides cover for when Santon or Debuchy venture forwards on attacking forays; Yohan Cabaye provides the flair and the panache that is key to unlocking the trickier teams that Newcastle might face; and new signing Moussa Sissoko is what the side truly lacked - a box-to-box player with a talent for passing and excellent vision.
Once Cheikh Tiote returns from the Africa Cup of Nations he will likely take Anita’s spot, though his role will be more hard-tackling than the Dutchman’s. Alternatively, Jonas Gutierrez could ably slot into the midfield three depending on squad rotation, but his best days are unquestionably behind him. Gael Bigirimana and Dan Gosling (once fit) are lesser options at St James’ Park this season, too.
Ahead of that midfield three can sit Sylvain Marveaux for the time being, though you would be foolish to think Hatem Ben Arfa would not waltz mesmerisingly into that position once he is back fit. Up front, Papiss Cisse would be the first choice to lead the line, with competition having lessened somewhat since his Senegalese compatriot Demba Ba left for Stamford Bridge in the winter window. On the other hand, acquiring Yoan Gouffran in January has added to the attacking ranks, and Shola Ameobi provides a sturdier - but far less pacy or goal-savvy - outlet than Cisse.
|MAGPIES IN DEFENSIVE MODE
|Playing in this line-up offers more protection when Pardew's side are on the back foot
Santon and Debuchy would revert back to full-backs to create a back-line of five, while Marveaux would drop to become the most forward-positioned centre midfielder of the four, creating a squashed diamond-of-sorts regarding how the midfield looks. Anita would still be covering the full-backs should they choose to counterattack, while Cabaye and Sissoko would also have the freedom to venture out of their own half if they fancied an attack. But the focus would be unwavering defence, which is nothing to be ashamed of for a team of Newcastle’s standing.
Alan Pardew has tailored his side with a distinctly French connection, but now he should embrace a tactic more commonly associated with another continental European country - Italy.
Manchester City’s ego-heavy dressing room rejected Roberto Mancini’s attempts to implement having three centre-backs, with many a player showing a public disdain for the coach’s flirtation with playing wing-backs.
Wigan showed the impact it can have on a team with more limited talent late in the 2011-12 campaign, though it is hard to argue that Roberto Martinez has had unbridled success as the club remain in the relegation region. Very few other Premier League sides have dared meddle with the traditional number of centre-backs they play, despite top teams abroad such as Juventus showing how well it can work.
However, Newcastle have the players to perfect it on English soil, and Pardew - whose long deal at St James’ Park has been ridiculed since the north east club started playing so poorly as soon as the ink was dry - would have an opportunity once again to impress if such a gilt-edged gamble paid off.