At lunchtime on Saturday, Chelsea take the long trip up north to St. James’ Park to take on Newcastle United in a match that could have Alan Pardew sweating in his seat in the dugout. After back-to-back defeats against Manchester City and Sunderland, Pardew has to be feeling the pressure from the supporters to get a result, particularly if he wants to keep his job. Interestingly, it was just two years ago that Pardew signed his eight-year contract at Newcastle off the back of his successful qualification and run in the Europa League. How times have changed since then.
Last season, injuries and inconsistency saw them, for long periods of time, languishing in the bottom half of the table and were sucked into a bit of a relegation fight. They hovered near the bottom three last season, but 3 vital points over Chelsea in last year’s corresponding fixture were a bonus, and they were able to stave off relegation. This season is much the same, but without the injury problems. A loss to City could be expected, but being defeated by Sunderland, who had just 1 point, in the Tyne-Wear Derby will not sit well with supporters, and Pardew and Newcastle are in desperate need of a win.
In the other dugout, things are looking much more rosy for Jose Mourinho at the moment. Not only has his Chelsea side secured a big win at home over title rivals Manchester City, but he was able to make 10 changes to that side for the Capital One Cup against Arsenal and see his team respond to dominate the Gunners, who sit at the top of the table. That win may prove to be more psychological because both fielded “B” teams, but nonetheless, he’ll be pleased with having 21 players to choose from who are in good spirits. Even more importantly, his much-maligned striker situation seems to have a happy resolution, as Fernando Torres is beginning to find a period of sustained form that sees him, most likely, as first choice.
Will the real Newcastle United please stand up?
Forrest Gump once said, “life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Well, the same could easily be applied to Newcastle because you’re not sure what kind of performance you’re going to get from them. Their last two matches are microcosm of that inconsistency. Against City, they created the better chances and you could argue that they outplayed them for 90 minutes and could have won that match without going to extra time, but they failed to take the chances that they created. Against Sunderland, they dominated possession for long periods of time, but never really looked like they’d ever score against their rivals and looked creaky in defence. That’s the big question coming into this match, outside of any tactics or anything else that can be discussed; which Newcastle shows up at St James’ Park on Saturday?
We’ve seen what they are capable of, especially last season where Moussa Sissoko singlehandedly brought them back from 2-1 down to clinch a 3-2 victory at home, and we know the daunting nature of going to face Newcastle away. What we aren’t sure of is what kind of team we’ll face, and that unknown could actually be the most consistent part of Newcastle – their consistent inconsistency.
Alan Pardew is tinkering with his personnel because his strikers aren’t firing.
Pardew’s really struggled to find the right combination in his starting 11, particularly with Papiss Cisse’s mysterious inability to even come close to scoring. In the absence of Cisse, he’s played Loic Remy as a lone striker at times with Hatem Ben Arfa on the wing, and other times, he’s played Ben Arfa as sort of a false 9 with Remy out wide, similar to how Barcelona managed Lionel Messi and David Villa.
The problem is that neither has a lot of physical punch to them, especially when you consider that they don’t really have an attacking midfielder in their side, even from deep. They’ve been tending to play a 4-3-3 with Cheick Tiote in the Makelele role and Yohan Cabaye and Sissoko in advance of him. The problem is that Cabaye is not really an attacking midfielder who likes to play further forward and Sissoko is more of a box-to-box type. Essentially, it means that all creativity in the final third for Newcastle comes from their front three. They are very good creating in the transitions and building the initial attack through midfield, but unless there’s space to exploit in the back line, Newcastle have struggled to get through.
Evidence of that is the match against Sunderland where they had a lot of the ball, but lacked that punch in the final third to get through and spent the entire time either passing it around in front of the Sunderland defence, launching hopeful crosses, or taking shots from distance.
Papiss Cisse was the one that scored the wonder goal against us at Stamford Bridge. But since then, he’s been more hit and miss than before.
When we were searching for another striker last season and the names of Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse came up, I always had my reservations because if you look at their scoring records, they are very much streaky goal scorers. They tended to get their goals in bunches and then go through large dry spells without scoring that would rival the drought that Torres had when he first joined Chelsea.
Demba Ba was the one that eventually arrived, and I think was the right choice. Despite getting goals in spurts, he’s a much more natural finisher, and I think a better all-around player. That being said, his departure, I think, has had a massive impact on Cisse’s play in terms of effectiveness.
I always wondered how you could play the two together up front because they are very similar players. However, since Demba Ba has left, Cisse has not found the spaces that he had before. This begs the question of whether or not when Cisse was scoring, it was because Ba was opening spaces, or was Cisse making those spaces for himself when needed.
The answer probably lies somewhere in between because when Ba was scoring, Cisse was not, and when Cisse was scoring, Ba was not. However, I don’t think Cisse’s been the same player he was when he first arrived at Newcastle, and I don’t think he’s been quite the same since Ba left, hence why he’s sitting firmly on the bench.
Matchup to watch: Eden Hazard versus Mathieu Debuchy.
Now, I’m highlighting this matchup not because I think it will decide the match, but it’s one that I think is generally interesting on a few levels.
A couple years back when we were recruiting right backs, eventually leading to the purchase of Cesar Azpilicueta from Marseille, we were keen on Debuchy after his Lille side won Ligue 1. One teammate on that side was Eden Hazard, who did join the Blues, and now the two teammates will once again face each other, but this time having been in England for two seasons.
It’s also a good matchup simply because Debuchy is on the verge of overtaking Bakary Sagna for the right back spot for France and because Hazard is completely capable of dominating a game. Debuchy is especially important because Newcastle tend to either play Yoan Gouffran or Ben Arfa in front of him, and neither one offers much protection in defence. If Debuchy can stop Hazard, the Blues will have to turn their attention to the left side, where the man who was given his debut for Inter at 18 by Jose Mourinho, Davide Santon, lurks
Outside of the fullbacks, Newcastle have some real problems at center back.
With injuries to both first-choice center backs, Fabricio Coloccini and Steven Taylor, Newcastle have had a patchwork combination of defenders picked from Michael Williamson, Paul Dummett, and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa. Williamson’s always been solid, but Dummett is young and has succumbed to a hamstring injury and Yanga-Mbiwa is just returning from a red card suspension for his takedown of Luis Suarez in the penalty area against Liverpool.
The interesting thing will be how Yanga-Mbiwa copes with the movement of whatever striker we put out there and the three behind him. Williamson is a decent defender, but if he doesn’t have a decent partner, it could all end in tears. Yanga-Mbiwa struggled against Liverpool in dealing with Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, so if he can’t deal with Torres, Hazard, and Oscar, then it will be a bad day on Tyneside.