Where has it gone wrong for Newcastle?

Matthew Lewis

What started out as a season that promised so much has dissolved into a campaign dictated by the looming spectre of relegation for Alan Pardew

Seven years ago, West Ham made the FA Cup Final and finished ninth in the Premier League. Their manager, Alan Pardew, was widely praised, having initially faced opposition from the club's supporters after a poor start.

Twelve months later, the former Crystal Palace midfielder was out of a job, having been sacked for poor results in both the Premier League and the UEFA Cup. On Saturday, the Newcastle manager returns to his former club praying history does not repeat itself.

It was meant to be a very different season for Newcastle. It started with hope, as all seasons do, but in this case, the hope was justified. The Magpies were coming off a campaign in which they had surpassed all expectations with a surge up the table into fifth place; a just reward for their consistent performances throughout the campaign. Newcastle's success was built from a raft of clever, inexpensive purchases; Yohan Cabaye and Demba Ba the most impressive - the latter scored goals, the former created them.

But it was difficult to identify exactly what the Newcastle style was. Broadly speaking, they played direct football, profiting greatly on the counter-attack, but were also capable of long periods of short passing to create goals. That flexibility was probably their greatest asset - against weaker sides, they could dominate possession, but against the top tier, they sat back, suffocated the space, and broke quickly into the attacking third.

This adjustability was exaggerated by the arrival of Papiss Cisse from Freiburg. With Ba in terrific form, the logic of signing his Senegal teammate, another striker, was questionable, but it gave Pardew an extra option in attack. Switching between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 to accommodate the two, Cisse embarked on a stunning run of form - a remarkable thirteen goals in twelve games - and Newcastle avoided stagnation, finishing the season on a high with the confirmation of European football in 2012-13.

But that prize has turned into punishment. While the first-choice side was strong on paper, Newcastle's depth was weak, and the extra Europa League games pushed Pardew's squad to the limit. Their exertions in reaching the semi-final, toppling Anzhi Makhachkala and Bordeaux along the way, seems to have robbed them of the energy required to grind out results on the domestic front.

Newcastle's form has been awful and frustratingly inconsistent all season, and the most damning statistic is goals conceded - 66, the worst in the league. Injuries to Davide Santon, Fabricio Coloccini and more recently, Tim Krul, undermine Pardew's attempts to replicate the defensive solidity that was so imperative last season. The five Frenchman signed in January introduced a little impetus, most notably in that 3-2 win over Chelsea in which Mousso Sissoko's strength simply destroyed the Chelsea back four, but have since struggled to reprise that same influence. The reality is that Papiss Cisse's impact was exaggerated by form that was, for all intents and purposes, impossible to maintain for the course of a season. His impact was staggering, and expecting the same from another player is unrealistic.

Part of the problem has been Pardew's bizarre tactics. The aforementioned performance from Sissoko saw him operating as a powerful no.10, motoring forward in support of Papiss Cisse. On Sunday, Pardew used him out wide, up against Jose Enrique. The Spaniard overlapped down the left manfully and drove the Frenchman back towards his own goal, limiting his influence on the contest.

The midfield zone has been a particular problem for Pardew. Two standouts from last season, Jonas Gutierrez and Cheik Tiote have faltered alarmingly. The former was bizarrely cast into a central role at the start of the season but is clearly suited to the wing, while the latter's previously impressive physical strength is now reserved for conceding silly free-kicks, rather than for protecting the back four.

The versatile Vurnon Anita is yet to find a proper role, while the continued selection of James Perch in a defensive midfield role robs Newcastle of passing quality in midfield. The manager presumably wants that guile to instead come from Cabaye but the midfielder has been out of sorts - probably a correlation with the fact he's continuously switched between an advanced and deep-lying role. He can operate in both positions, but the lack of cohesion throughout the side disrupts his ability to influence the tempo.

Put simply, this Newcastle side is yet to gel. There's an obvious lack of familiarity in attack - through balls come too late, and so Papiss Cisse ranks amongst the highest in the league for offsides. Yoan Gouffran cuts inside from the flank but provides little else, meaning he is anonymous in matches where Newcastle does not dominate possession; while Hatem Ben Arfa's long-term injury has its own obvious implications.

The organization of the back four is even more alarming. Liverpool's fluidity and rotation in attack was impressive but the extent to which Newcastle's defenders were dragged out of position bordered on the ludicrous. Despite starting with two holding midfielders, there was no-one to be found shielding the defence - a problem particularly evident in the 3-0 defeat to Sunderland, where all three goals came from long-range shots in positions that should have been occupied by the nominal holding midfielders. Against Liverpool, Mathieu Debuchy's red card for a scything tackle summed up his side's frustrations.

With their downward spiral seemingly never ending, the board's decision to hand Pardew an eight-year contract last year seems especially foolish. Newcastle's style is obvious now: lots of long balls, desperation, and above all, the hope that they can avoid a repeat of 2009, when they were ignominiously relegated. But sometimes, as has been the case this season for Newcastle, it's the hope that kills you.

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