After a predictable 2-2 draw away to Reading at the Madejski Stadium, Chelsea take another trip to the north to visit St. James Park, or the SportsDirect Arena as it were, to take on Newcastle United side that have found themselves in the middle of a relegation fight. That would have been hard to predict for the Toon army, given that their team qualified for Europe with a 5th place finish above their visitors last season. However, injuries and a slow start have managed to see Alan Pardew’s side in 15th place and just 4 points clear of the drop zone.

Rafa Benitez’s Chelsea, on the other hand, have a similar 4 point advantage over fourth-placed Tottenham for third but have been struggling for form as of late, having won just 2 times in their last 5 league outings, including draws to relegation candidates Reading and Southampton, and a loss to bottom of the table QPR. The news is better, though, as the FA have decided against increasing Eden Hazard’s suspension for ball-boy gate, and Petr Cech and Juan Mata are both fit with the latter having been taken off with an ankle problem against Reading.

They will be needed since Pardew has reinforced his side this transfer window and has welcomed back Yohan Cabaye who had been out for nearly two months.

Newcastle United: A Tale of Two Cities.
I found the title quite appropriate on many levels. First, the fact that Alan Pardew, or as he’s been renamed in some circles “Alain Pardieu,” has recruited any number of French players this January to reinforce his side, most notably Moussa Sissoko, Yoan Gouffran, and Mathieu Debuchy. Secondly, it works because one has to wonder which team is the real Newcastle United, the team that finished fifth last year and looked to be going places, or the team that’s struggling to get wins this season and languishing fifth from bottom?

Personally, I believe that this Newcastle team has been struggling for form due to a small squad and key injuries that added on to the fact that their early season form was a real problem. At the end of the season, people wondered if maybe this Newcastle team were a year too soon in qualifying for Europe and if their squad could cope with playing Thursday-Sunday football. We have our answer.

So far this season, Newcastle United have netted just 24 points, scoring 30 goals and conceding 42. Last season at the same point, Newcastle had scored 36 goals, conceded 31, and registered 42 points. That’s a big difference in point totals, but not that great a difference in goals scored, though in matchday 25, they would see 5 fly past them without reply.

That leads me to look at the fact that this season, Newcastle have scored 2 goals or more just 8 times and have only won 3 of those matches. Last season, Newcastle were the masters of the 2-1, 2-2 score line and gained many points from that position. Simply put, their defence this season has not been good enough, and they haven’t quite consistently scored the goals.
However, you could make the argument that injuries to squad that really lacks depth beyond it’s first 11 can be crucial, and as we’ve seen as of late, having to play a lot of matches when you have thin squad can lead to many more mental errors that end up resulting in goals. And I think that’s the root of their issues.

How well can Newcastle’s side gel in just two weeks?
This is the tricky part because all of them will most likely play some part, and possibly a major one in this match. They all bring different things to the table and do have quality. Sissoko is often confused with his namesake, Mohamed (though they are not related) who played for Liverpool, but he’s a much different player. Moussa is much more of a defensive midfielder with an eye for a pass as he demonstrated against Aston Villa. For comparison’s sake, if Mohamed was an older Michael Essien, Moussa is a similar type of player to Patrick Vieira.
Gouffran is an interesting purchase if only because he’s not really and out and out striker, but he’s also not really a winger. He’s one of those players that in the modern game plays more of an inside left or right or can be a support striker. For Newcastle’s purposes, he very well might be the strike partner for Papiss Cisse because he does offer a little more range and variety in his play than Demba Ba did, but he could also slide out wide with the absence of Hatem Ben Arfa.

Debuchy, to me, is the bargain that they picked up. He’s a right back that we tracked from Lille in the summer before buying Cesar Azpilicueta. However, Lille were a bit hesitant to part with both Hazard and Debuchy in the same window, and only have done so because of their league form being so poor, coupled with financial issues at the club. However, he very well may be France’s number-one right back very soon and can attack as well as defend. The right back position has been a bit of a problem for Newcastle with Danny Simpson being too inconsistent and James Perch being a tad too slow.

Having described them all, the real question is, whether or not they all can play together and can do so seamlessly. At the moment, it’s vital that they do because Newcastle need points and lack a tad bit of guile at times to score goals.

Where have Newcastle’s goals gone? In their own net?
That’s an interesting question to ask, only because Ba departed Newcastle as their leading scorer on the season with 13 goals. Papiss Cisse was the second-leading scorer at 7, but anyone that’s watched him over the past few months can tell that he’s not really firing on all cylinders. To me, the interesting thing is that both of them are streaky. This season, Ba was firing in all the goals for Newcastle, but Cisse was terribly off form. At the end of last season, the opposite was true.

The bottom line is that the scoring totals have been inconsistent for Newcastle, but the biggest concern is the frequency of goals conceded, despite largely having the same back line as last season. As of now, they’ve conceded just 9 fewer goals than they have during the whole of last year. Part of that is the absence of Cheick Tiote and Cabaye in front of the back line and the drop-off from them to their backups, but part of it must be for some other reason.

You can counterattack Newcastle to death, as long as you do it with pace.
And therein is the biggest thing that I think the Premier League’s sides have all found out about Newcastle between last season and this season. Newcastle have never been a great possession side over the last few years. What they were good at was cycling the ball just enough to find a gap to release Ba or Cisse who would finish, or let Ben Arfa create something out wide in tandem with Cabaye. If you look at last season’s stats, the majority of teams that they faced dominated the possession, yet managed to find themselves on the wrong end of a 2-1 or 2-0.

This season, teams are still looking to control possession, but not necessarily trying to dominate them into submission. Last season, they almost lured you in by playing just the two midfielders with two wide players and two strikers. It gave you the illusion that you could break them down by outnumbering them in the middle, yet Ben Arfa and Jonas Gutierrez often tucked inside behind the strikers to give them a four-man midfield to defend with. The biggest change, and one that Manchester United and Arsenal employed is to attack them with pace. United sat deeper and allowed them a bit more possession that did result in a lot of goals from failure to track runners, but when they came at Newcastle, they did so quickly and looking to exploit the gaps behind the midfield. In Arsenal’s case, they had the same issue in that Newcastle do have intelligent movement in Cisse and the ability of Cabaye, but Theo Walcott’s pace gave them all sorts of trouble when they got the ball forward quickly.

Other teams have done similar things to Newcastle, perhaps because of the lack of guile without Ben Arfa. With Ben Arfa out, they really don’t have a player that can create a goal from nothing, and they also aren’t a side with a great deal of overall pace. You may not be able to batter them into submission, but the counterattack seems to work well.

Why so many late goals?
This is the great conundrum amidst the draws to Southampton and Reading. What are we doing differently this season than we did in the past? Is it all on Rafa and his inability to motivate the players? What about the on-field leadership?

In this writer’s opinion, it all comes down to one thing: fatigue. The first thing that I’ve noticed in every athlete, be it professional, amateur, or just playing for fun, the first thing that goes when you’re tired is your mental clarity. Marathon runners’ training involves more than just getting their body in shape. It’s a lot of mental training to teach your brain to not realize that your body is tired. That’s how many can maintain the pace that they do for the duration of the race and not seem fatigued.

That translates to footballers as well. This will be Chelsea’s 42nd match of this season. From those 42 matches, 10 of the first-team players have registered at least 30 appearances, with the bulk of them having played in 35 or more matches, and the ones who haven’t hit 30 appearances have only not done so because of injury, needing match fitness, or going off to the African Cup of Nations.

The sloppiness that has been occurring at the back late in matches, I believe, is a product of that fatigue. I think that by the end of the match, mentally and physically players are tired and with such short recovery time after matches, who can blame them? It’s mystifying to me that the only player bought in January was Demba Ba, though that could also be a sign from the board that they don’t trust Benitez. We shall see, but the fatigue factor will not go away, and we still have over three months left. Having a week off will be a welcome sight to most of the players.