After possibly the worst display from NUFC this season I couldn't help but look through my hands that were over my eyes and think...would our 'European team' beat our Premier League outfit? The more I thought about it, the more I decided, probably yea. If the two sides squared up against each other at St James' Park, the team in green would look the more impressive. So considering clubs get criticised for playing 'weaker' sides in Europe, what's going on?
Our line up versus West Brom had more of our senior players but it did not play anywhere near as well as the younger ones did on Thursday night, or against Bordeaux a few weeks ago. So how can this be? For me, the answer lies in the balance of the side. I asked the question in my last post, is Shane Ferguson our best choice at left back? From what I saw again from us in the league without him, I would say definitely yes. The reason being he brings that balance to the side, particularly in attack, by being naturally left sided and sticking to the sideline. Something Jose Enrique did very well for us. All to often when Santon got forward against West Brom he instantly cuts inside into a wall of traffic. He's then forced to play it backwards or to try something impossible like an eye of the needle pass or a 30 yard strike. He does this in every game he plays at left back. When he does find himself in behind the opposition, he doesn't have the left foot to whip the ball into the box. On the other side at right back, Danny Simpson showed again what I have witnessed for years now, he doesn't even get forward full stop. How many times did Danny Simpson go beyond the halfway line and attack WBA's left back? Hardly any. It's criminal. I'll be glad when he's gone I swear.
With Shane Ferguson in the team he gets forward down the left and attacks the defender down the outside. He then has the ability to whip the ball into the box with outstanding quality. He doesn't go wandering around the centre of the pitch and get crowded out like Santon. He finds half a yard and delivers. Simplicity itself. What this also does is push Santon to right back. When Jonas went to left back and Santon went to right back in place of the hopefully soon to be exiting Simpson, Davide never cut inside once. He didn't need to. He was on his comfortable side and he at least attempted crosses into the box. Santon supports his winger. Simpson does nothing but cover him. At home against team's like WBA, that isn't good enough. Ferguson at left back and Santon at right back is the way forward. I am adamant about this.
Another problem I am afraid is Jonas Gutierrez. I mean what is he? He isn't a winger. He isn't a central midfielder. He isn't a full back. I am all for versatile players but there is a difference between being versatile like Perch and not actually having a specialist position. Perch is a centre back. He can fill in other positions when needed. Jonas is a specialist at nothing. He's nothing but a hard worker who loves being fouled. He is statistically the most fouled player in the Premier League over the past few years. You know why? Because when he receives the ball everything suddenly seems to move in slow motion. It's like watching a scene from The Matrix. Jonas time and time and time again will receive the ball, not have a clue what to do with it, not get his head up to look for a pass, put his body in between the ball and the opposition player, feel a nudge...and then go down. Constantly. That's all he does. It's beyond frustrating now. It's just plain pathetic. The sooner he is out of the team and a specialist player is used instead for the position he would otherwise take up, the better. Once this happens our team will start to play with some assertiveness, with some speed in attack, with some cutting edge and some quality on the ball. Jonas needs to be dropped. Now.
I stress that the problem with our league team is at home on our turf. Away from home we haven't been that bad with dogged results gained at the mackems, Everton and Reading. This isn't a knee jerk reaction either from myself. We played poorly 90% of the time at home last season as well and managed to grind out wins, rather than play teams off the park.
The main problem with our League team compared to our European team, is it seems to lack a clear and effective identity. Does Pardew even know his best team? I don't think he does. We have played 9 league games now and in every single one, without fail, Pardew has changed the system at some point during the game. Sometimes after 20 mins, sometimes at half time, sometimes after an hour. The change is usually from the failing starting system of a flat and narrow 4-4-2, to some kind of version of a 4-3-3/4-5-1. Ironically it was almost the opposite on Sunday.
We started with some kind of 4-3-3 and we actually dominated the game for half and hour up until we scored. We had Shola on the right and Benny on the left with Ba up front. It worked up to a point but West Brom threatened to hit us on the break and got in twice with Lukaku in a one-on-one situation. We had to rely completely on Krul. What scared me about Pardew's decision to play this system was to choose Shola over Cisse. Shola assisted Demba's goal but it wasn't down to the system, it was a lump up the field from our keeper flicked on by big Shola himself. Apart from this and a decent cross in the first 10 mins, Ameobi did nothing of any note. After a slow start to the second half Pardew than abandoned the system on the hour and went to 4-4-2. He dragged off Shola by bringing on Cisse. It didn't really work. We were even worse after we switched to this if anything. Now this sums up our league campaign. In the league there is no clear direction as to how we are going to play. There is far too much chop and change during games, never mind from one game to the next. This confusion, indecisiveness and lack of consistency is stalling our campaign from kick starting into gear. This is my point and the clear problem. We need to decide on a way of playing and stick to it.
Whereas if you look at the Europa League team, it's clear what our 'European' identity is. 4-2-3-1 with two sitting players, a player in the hole and two out and out attacking wide players. They know what they are doing. They know their jobs. So far they have carried them out admirably. Look at that team that has swept aside Bordeaux and Club Brugge to the one that has struggled against West Brom, Norwich and Aston Villa. Relying on luck or just plain individual brilliance...it's unrecognisable. It's a lesser team in my eyes even with the better individuals. It needs to change.
Our Premier League team needs to reflect our European team in everything except the individual. It needs to be the same system, same tactics, same mentality and same direction. When you add the fact of better players, it should be the better team. At this moment in time, I kid you not, my last tenner would be on the team in lime green against the one in black and white if they lined up against one another. Look at them potentially here:
The top one may look weaker on paper with individuals but they will play as a team, have balance, have cohesion, dominate the centre of the field with possession, get the ball out wide and drive at the defence. The full backs would get forward offering more width and cross the ball constantly into the box, they would have a player in the hole linking the striker to the midfield and not leave him totally exposed, they would look to play passes into feet and dominate the possession.
The team below would hoof the ball forward, have no width and would deliver no quality into the box. The right back would never get forward and the left back would constantly cut in and be crowded out easily, the central midfielders would be outnumbered and suffocated in front of the defence. They would resort to kicking it long for the majority of the game and hope for the best.
At the moment in time, the latter is what we are getting in the Premier League more often then not. The former is what we are getting in Europe. The Premier League team is struggling and has three unconvincing lucky wins. The European team has two dominant wins and is yet to concede a goal. I am not saying it's perfect but those two home performances against decent teams on a Thursday night, were a damn site better than every home game on a Saturday/Sunday afternoon so far. Head to Head - my money is on the Euro team.
We got the win against West Brom but we got lucky. Now I am not going to just discard that luck quickly as we have had our fair share of bad luck so far this season. The derby Demba Ba own goal being the latest. But I want this lucky win to be the catalyst to our season. I want it to be the catalyst to Alan Pardew to say, do you know what, we have had our moments of fighting against adversity like the mackems and Everton games, but overall we've been awful in the league so far. Call a spade a spade. Then say, well we have been impressive in Europe so we're getting something right there. Maybe what we are doing on a Thursday night in the more experimental team is the way forward for the senior team as well. The system I am picking along with certain personnel in specific positions, like at left back with Fergie and two sitting midfielders, brings a balance and a control to our game. We look to pass the ball instead of lumping it in hope. We're top of our group and have yet to concede a goal. This is the team I want to take into the stuttering league season.
Having said all of the above, the best team for me from what I have seen and taking everything into account is the following:
Ba and Cisse would swap position every 15 mins or so giving each player a fair crack at centre forward. Ben Arfa would be given the free role in the hole he craves and is most effective at. Cabaye and Tiote (Bigi in his absense) would marshall midfield they do so well. Obertan or Sammy would provide the constant width from the right without wandering around the pitch too much, which Ben Arfa tends to do. The full backs would support the wide men and offer delivery from out wide instead of just covering the winger defensively.
The above team should be the Plan A for all home matches from now on. That team would get our league campaign back on track. That team would be able to string 3 passes together. That team would refrain from kicking the ball long in sheer blind hope and would look to pass the ball through midfield. That is a team I would put my last ten quid on to be able to sweep away sides the likes of West Ham and Swansea, who we play in our next two home league games, without much of a drama.
Whether Pardew will come to this conclusion is still to be seen, but he should. Once and for all.
Howay The Lads!
(Follow me on Twitter @ToonBano)