Wednesday, 16 September 2015

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Monday night's defeat at West Ham United was described as a "wake up call" by Steve McClaren. For Newcastle United supporters it was like waking up in a time where the team was managed by John Carver.

For all the positivity amongst a mixed bag of results so far this season, the 2-0 reverse very much felt like a couple of steps back having seemingly taken a step forward. It was a stark reminder that, despite an excellent recruitment drive this summer, Newcastle still have an awful lot of work to do to improve on the last couple of seasons.
Lots to ponder: Steve McClaren has work to do to improve United fortunes

This was not a performance that suggested that the club has kicked on from the woes of the previous regime, and it was an all too familiar sinking feeling as the goals went in and the final whistle blew at the Boleyn Ground.

"Gutless" was a term widely used to describe Newcastle's performance in its aftermath and it is hard to argue. Unfortunately and worryingly, without ever making it an excuse, as soon as I heard the team were stuck in London traffic I was quick to assume that a lot of the players wouldn't fancy it out there once the game kicked off.

Andy Cole gave his view that the side is full of "expensive foreign talent" who do not know what it means to the supporters to wear the shirt. Before the game, having seen West Ham's line up, I was quick to remark on Twitter that Florian Thauvin had the opportunity to give James Tomkins a nightmare evening down the left side. A big Centre Half operating out of position against an exciting winger should fear the worst yet it turned out to be a stroll in the park for Tomkins.
Lone ranger: Janmaat provided Newcastle's only threat on Monday

Thauvin turned in an eye-catching performance in the League Cup however, like Sissoko, Cisse, and Anita, didn't turn up on a Monday night in East London. It was a frighteningly Remy Cabella-esque performance by the Frenchman, who exchanged ways with last season's flop. This backs up Cole's point that for all the international talent, you've got to dig in and attempt to put in a performance every time you play in the Premier League.

Newcastle United have spent too long carrying mediocre foreign players who can't be trusted to provide any sort of consistency. Steve McClaren has his work cut out to improve this.

A major problem for United since the departure of Yohan Cabaye and the isolation of Hatem Ben Arfa has been a severe lack of quality and creativity in midfield. It seemed like every time Chancel Mbemba brought the ball out of the defence there was absolutely nobody showing for the ball in the middle of the park; nobody coming to take control of such a key area. Mbemba's frustration was apparent as he once again resorted to playing it long.

Gary Neville gave a damning assessment of the midfield, highlighting how they were neither protecting the back four nor supporting the attack. The final ball, as it has been since Cabaye left for Paris, was weak and ineffective, even suicidal; as yet another embarrassing set piece led to the killer second goal for the Hammers.

There is no risk taking. As Neville said the front three hardly covered themselves in glory but there was a chronic lack of support, probing, and adventure. Aimless cross after aimless cross made its way towards the vicinity of the West Ham penalty area with an alarming lack of quality. Other than the right back Janmaat, who in one game registered nearly all of the season’s shots on target thus far, there was no endeavour to really breach and get beyond the opposition.

It was frighteningly resemblant of early last season, particularly another miserable Monday night game at Stoke City where the team wouldn't have scored if they had played all night.

McClaren's set up with two holding midfielders and one striker is not providing the desired platform for the team to achieve results and the head coach must surely be plotting changes for the upcoming game against Watford. Only when Siem De Jong came on and Wijnaldum dropped deeper to link up with his compatriot did Newcastle look anything remotely like a threat.
Box to box: Wijnaldum must be utilised better to improve chances of goals

De Jong's gradual inclusion is probably right, taking into account his horrendous fortune with injury last season. Hopefully this will lead to him starting regularly, as he looks like he has the quality to play in the position that Wijnaldum is currently occupying.

From what I have seen of Newcastle's biggest summer signing, Gini Wijnaldum looks far more effective when he plays deeper than the Number 10 role. Strong on the ball and composed in possession, Wijnaldum has the quality to hurt opposition from the centre of the pitch. Also, rather than hoping to run onto crosses, passes and knock downs, he can be the man providing the quality for the likes of De Jong and co further forward. McClaren talked of him being a box-to-box player so is it time to implement that? I think so.

Criticism of Papiss Cisse on the back of Monday's game is largely unfair. We all know where Cisse's strengths lie and how he relies on service to provide the goods. Just look at last season, where sometimes the only balls of quality provided (usually from Janmaat) led to Cisse goals. He is not a player who can work in isolation and hold up the ball and link play as he was expected to at Upton Park. Yes he was poor on the ball but he only ever got it with his back to goal well outside of the penalty area.

As Alan Shearer said, Newcastle would have fared the same playing with 10 men but that is more the fault of Newcastle's set up and lack of build-up play than Cisse's alone.

There will be calls for Ayoze Perez's inclusion this weekend, and it is hard to argue. His cameo on Monday, as with De Jong's, brought much needed quality and composure that the side has been lacking. He is a fantastic outlet for maintaining possession and bringing teammates into play. I certainly wouldn't be surprised to see a linkup between the two substitutes from the start, which will perhaps allow Newcastle to muster more quality attempts on goal.
Change: Calls have been made to start De Jong and Perez against Watford

It is a given that Saturday is a must win game, particularly with the fixtures that follow. If Newcastle want to keep themselves away from a relegation battle this season, they simply have to be winning a game against newly-promoted Watford. As with last season with the victory over Leicester at the seventh attempt, we all know that one win can kick start a good run. Who thought that Newcastle would go on to register the victories that they did after that first win?

It is far too early in the season to be panicking, just look at Chelsea. But it is also important that the early problems are addressed and are not ignored. McClaren has himself expressed everybody's reservations and openly admitted the need to improve. If the solution is not found then indeed it will be a tough season, but there must be confidence that the club can make the improvements necessary.

One win in the Premier League under the new regime can give Newcastle United the stride forward needed to escape the perils of the past few seasons. Without adapting the current structure on the field however, the goals, clean sheets, and victories will continue to be hard to come by.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Unwanted: Mitrovic must shake off unfair reputation

I've watched it time and again and my opinion hasn't changed since the live incident: Aleksandar Mitrovic was unfortunate to be sent off against Arsenal at St James' Park.

His eyes firmly fixed on the ball, the big striker attempted to trap the ball on its way down but it was nicked away by Francis Coquelin. A split second incident, ultimately the theft of the ball meant that there was no other outcome than Mitrovic landing on the midfielder's ankle.

Eyes on the ball: Mitrovic unfortunate to be shown red

He challenged for the ball and missed out. Mistimed, yes. Intentional? Not for me. It was certainly a physical challenge but Mitrovic is a big, physical player and last time I looked football was a contact sport.

Now I'm not saying I'm an advocate for two footed challenges, elbows, and lunges but this was none of them. Unfortunately modern football dictates that any sort of challenge can run the risk of caution and it is going to come to a point where players are not competing for the ball in fear of such reprimand.

I agree that the referee's job is difficult, having to make a lot of decisions in a split second in a high pressured arena and I understand that this can lead to poor decisions being made. But there is no doubt in my mind that Mitrovic's "reputation" came into play when Andre Marriner was making his mind up about which card to produce.

The enthusiastic frontman has certainly done himself no favours in his initial forays in Newcastle colours with his rash bookings against Southampton and Swansea in the season's opening exchanges. His early indiscipline was gold-dust for pundits and the media who thrive on absolutely anything to fuel their sensationalism.

Unwanted attention: Striker has brought trouble to his own door at times

He can deny it all he wants but Andre Marriner was instantly reminded of Mitrovic's indiscretions as soon as that challenge was made. Would he have made the same decision if it was Santi Carzola or Alexis Sanchez making that challenge on a Newcastle player?

He almost proved that he wouldn't have made that decision with almost any other player, booking Moussa Sissoko minutes before with what looked in my view a naughtier challenge. That is what is frustrating with Premier League officiating; consistency. Week in, week out we are seeing a lack of consistency throughout the game - referees failing to keep controversy from their door.

If Mitrovic's was a red then so was Sissoko's. If Sissoko's was a yellow then surely Mitrovic's should have followed suit. In commentary Chris Waddle aired his annoyance at both decisions, particularly Sissoko's; which he said shouldn't have been a booking. Another frustrating yellow card in a physical game far removed from when Waddle played. Both challenges were players attempting to tackle or control the ball in what should be a physical contest, yet both yielded different consequences.

The problem with modern day football is the fact that incidents can be analysed and scrutinised from every angle in every motion. The more you look at a tackle the more it can make you think it is worse than it actually was: Pundits and analysts looking to boost ratings and sell newspapers with "headlines" which dominate all week along ahead of Premier League fixtures. They will disagree of course but in my book they have the potential to influence an official's mind-set going into games.

People who may oppose need only look at how the weekend panned out as a whole. Do you think that if there wasn't a red card in the early kick off for "dangerous play" that there would have been a total of 6 red cards issued? There is no way that every official in the top league that weekend didn't see or hear about Mitrovic's sending off and its circumstances before they set out to work in the afternoon.

Controversial thinking maybe, but look at the horrendous decision to send off Mark Noble at Anfield. Whenever there seems to be a red card for a dangerous tackle or incident, there seems to be a spate of cards that follow. Some referees are driven by fear that they will make the incorrect decision, and do nothing but steer themselves towards actually doing it. Expect to see more contentious reds in the coming games.

Baffling: Refereeing decisions continue to dominate the Premier League

What can be done to help? Every weekend seems to be dominated by a debatable refereeing decision. I am largely sceptical about video technology being introduced, as I think once it is in place where would you draw the line? It could become something that completely dominates the sport and makes football become a game different to what we know now.

One use would be in the case of red cards. The appeal system in cricket could be utilised, with the fourth official using video technology to agree with, or overturn a straight red card. A team reduced to ten men could have the player restored soon after if the decision was deemed wrong. It wouldn't really interrupt the flow of the game anyway, but as I said before where would you draw the line with the technology once it was in use?

Regardless of the controversy, Aleksandar Mitrovic has a problem he needs to deal with. Rightly or wrongly he has very quickly got a reputation for reasons he would rather avoid. Steve McClaren, Tim Krul, and Malcolm Macdonald to name a few have all expressed the need for the Serbian to "channel" his enthusiasm. There is nothing wrong with the player's will to compete and win for his team, to impress the Geordie faithful - it is to be admired. But in a modern game where any mistimed tackle or jump can result in suspension, he does need to manage his control.

It is fair to say Alan Shearer would have been far more penalised in 2015 than he was ten to twenty years previous, another physical centre forward who Mitrovic aspires to emulate on Tyneside.

Game has moved on: Alan Shearer would have faced more discipline in this age of football

Taking the aggression out of his game would likely reduce the impact of Mitrovic; ultimately Newcastle have bought a physical player who is at his best when he is 100% challenging for every ball. It may well be the case that the club and player will have to take a few more bumps and bruises and negative decisions along with the great things we hope for him to do.

Frustration: Nothing has gone right for McClaren and Mitrovic so far

What is clear for now however is that his indiscipline is already starting to irk his Manager and team-mates. Mitrovic already has a lot of work to do on his return.