NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - MAY 22: Newcastle manager Alan Pardew shouts out instructions during the Barclays Premier League game between Newcastle United and West Bromwich Albion at St James' Park on May 22, 2011 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
With the departure of Kevin Nolan and the collapse of Joey Barton's contract talks, a new Newcastle is taking shape under Alan Pardew's direction.
[Ed note: The title is not my doing]
Interesting times at St. James' Park. The departure of Kevin Nolan, and the suggestion that Joey Barton and perhaps one or two more may be following him, means that Newcastle's likely first team for their opening fixture against Arsenal will bear little resemblance to the team that ended last season with a comedy 3-3 draw against West Bromwich Albion and a creditable mid-table finish.
That team, of course, shared plenty of players with the team that came up from the Championship in 2010. Notable additions to the squad were the wonderful Chiek Tioté and the talented Hatem Ben Arfa, who had the misfortune to get brutally De Jong'd just as he was starting to impress. But the most notable change from that team was the absence of Andy Carroll, who scored nineteen in the promotion campaign and whose eleven goals in the first half of 2010/11 were enough to convince Liverpool to make him the eighth most expensive player in the History of All Football (or the eleventh, if you adjust for inflation and believe Wikipedia). And Carroll's departure might provide the clue for the wholesale readjustment that is under way, to the disquiet of some Newcastle fans, and to much "typical Newcastle" head-shaking beyond.
A football team is a network of players, and a network of smaller networks: central defensive partnerships; winger-and-fullback; strike partnerships; and so on. It functions or fails as a consequence of the interplay of the various talents of its component players: how well the players cohere, and how they magnify one another's talents. For Newcastle, for the first half of the season just gone (and much of the season before), Carroll's football harmonised with Barton's service (to the tune of five direct assists), while Nolan thrived on Carroll's presence, scoring two-thirds of his 12 for the season before his erstwhile housemate's departure. Obviously, these statistics aren't the complete story, and nor were Barton and Nolan's value to the team confined to this alone, but they are suggestive of three players who work well together, and make one another better.
Which was all well and good, but when nonsensically large amounts of money are being thrown around, then the picture changes. Carroll is not quite the benighted offspring of Niall Quinn and Conan the Barbarian that caricature insists, but he does have certain attributes - height, strength, power, hair - in relatively rare proportions, meaning that there aren't many direct replacements knocking around. The striker that Newcastle have signed, Demba Ba, is a different percolator of fish: quicker, more athletic, more agile, less physical, less aerially dominant, but two-footed, and far better suited to the ball-in-behind then the ball-into-the-box.
As the focal point of the attack changes, so must the approach of the team. What makes a chance for Carroll may not for Ba, and vice versa: it'll do no good to have Barton still swinging crosses into the considerable space where Carroll used to keep his forehead, or to have Nolan foraging for a knockdown that doesn't come. And the sale of Nolan and the purchase of Yohan Cabaye is indicative of just such a change of approach. Cabaye, a diminutive box-to-box playmaker, doesn't score goals in the same quantities as Nolan, but has just completed a double in France as the schemer-in-chief for an entertaining and fluid OSC Lille side. With Demba Ba ahead of him, Tioté alongside, and the talented-if-injury-prone Sylvain Marveaux and the bipedal-once-more Hatem Ben Arfa on the flanks, the potential is there for a slick, stylish, exciting Newcastle team, with pace up front and guile behind.
Obviously, it's not beyond the realm of possibility that Barton could stay, though the stalling of contract talks seems indicative that Newcastle aren't desperate to keep him. Barton is undoubtedly a talented player - arguably, when on form, one of England's best midfielders - and would likely be able to adjust his game to the demands of a reconfigured attack; if nothing else, the ability to take a decent set piece will always be valuable, even without an extra from Avatar rampaging around the six-yard-box. But there are perhaps other reasons that Newcastle might not be too vexed at the thought of losing one of last season's best players.
The first and most obvious is Barton's character. While it appears that he has managed to eliminate or at least curb the spikier elements of his personality through anger management and the simple vicissitudes of age, which dulls all sharp edges, it would be understandable for a manager to take the view that the potential remains for something stupid, disruptive, or straightforwardly violent. While he was by no means Newcastle's most ill-disciplined player last season - his 7 bookings compares well with Nolan's 10 and Tioté's 14 (fourteen!) - but the perception that he represents a risk remains. An uncharitable or pragmatic view might be that one relatively restrained season is the exception, not the rule; a good memory might recall a three-match ban for a rabbit-punch to the chest of a startled Morten Gamst Pedersen.
The other reason concerns the identity of the team. Barton, Nolan and Carroll were the linchpins of Hughton's Newcastle; they liked, respected and worked for him. And while the rumbles of player discontent that greeted Hughton's dismissal were quickly dampened by decent results, which is all that ever really matters, the fact remains that they were not and would never be Alan Pardew's players. Football managers are often possessed of a potent combination of arrogance and the propensity to meddle. The urge to "make your mark" - to reshape a team in your identity - is persistent, seductive, and can be the undoing of a manager who tries to impose himself on a squad too quickly, forcefully or stupidly. But if Pardew is building a team to represent his ideas, it may simply be the case that there can be no place for Hughton's playmaker; that Barton is yesterday's man in a team charging towards tomorrow.
As any student of ancient China (or Terry Pratchett) will tell you, to live in interesting times is a curse, and nobody knows that as well as Newcastle fans. But the signs coming from St James' Park are encouraging. Mike Ashley appears to have found a manager that he trusts, likes, and is backing, with cash; players of talent and pedigree are arriving. That one of England's most quixotic and thuggish talents, and one of Newcastle's best players, might be a casualty of the rebuilding is a sign of how deep the change may go. But while the prospect of starting next season without the two highest scorers or the best player of the campaign just finished is perhaps discomfiting, it's not necessarily a sign of crisis.