Arguably the biggest coup of the summer was Faye Downey, our new conditioning coach. It was encouraging to see that the issue of fitness and niggling, pointless injuries had been addressed over the summer and I hope Faye does a good job of keeping the lads going, but there’s always the risk of more injuries. We’re also down on last season, with Danny Simpson heading to QPR on a free. Not an enormous miss as we have versatile players who can cover right-back should Debuchy get injured. James Perch was hard to take, as he was our most versatile player and did the job in every position he was stuck into.
Doubly frustrating though, was how clearly we’ve been screaming for a goalscorer since Demba Ba left. I’m still stinging over that. It was evident immediately that Cisse was not good enough on his own. His incredible tally of 12 goals in 15 games was largely down to Ba’s shift to the wing. When Ba went central again in the first part of last season, it became apparent he was the powerhouse behind the majority of our goals. Cisse often gets stranded and even looks like he’s lost his touch. I read a stat somewhere last season that said, on average, we created 30 goalscoring chances per game last season. Evidently our problem was getting them in the net. Granted, we’ve got Remy for a season, and so far he looks exciting and creates far more than Cisse, but we really needed a prolific, and permanent goalscorer.
I’m going to say as little as possible on Kinnear, as this is where I get sweary and incoherent. What I will say is that there was no logic behind the appointment. He’s still telling too many porkies – his account of the Prince of Nepal massacre is a highlight from a while ago, but he also told us he signed Tim Krul. His seemingly irrational behaviour is also a worry. Our scouting system works in the way that Carr identifies targets years in advance. Cabaye had been on the radar for around 2 years before we swooped for him. There are rumours that he turned up to meetings with clubs and agents drunk – how true that is, I don’t know. But I definitely feel like he chased away the players we’d been targeting for a while – and we’re not usually so open about our targets. Cabaye and Cisse came seemingly out of nowhere. Our pursuit of Debuchy and Yanga-Mbiwa were a little more public, as Lille played hardball over the former. But the sheer transparency of our targets this summer suggests to me that Kinnear is not playing by our scouting rules. Further, his targets are not consistent with us – Bent and Remy are names that are known in England and therefore their prices will be inflated above value. We’re used to hunting for bargains abroad and thus far, it’s worked.
Add to that an unambitious owner. I think we get a hard deal at times from those outside of the North East. ‘Those Geordies, they’re never happy. They expect too much’. I will absolutely admit that Ashley has done good for us in certain areas. Had he not wiped out our debt we could be Portsmouth #2. He’s also hellbent on not paying over the odds for players, hence why we shop abroad. I agree with that in principle, but it’s apparent that he’s just not willing to open the purse strings full stop judging on this summer. People point to January. That was, in a way, panic buying. Some of those players – MYM, Debuchy, were long term targets. Others were apparently earmarked for this summer. But looking at our squad, and more tellingly, our bench, it’s apparent that we still need bolstering. And someone who will regularly stick it in the net.
So after all that, it’s surely no surprise that I wasn’t exactly, for once in my life, jumping for joy at the start of the new season. My fears became reality when Manchester City tore us to pieces. “But it’s Manchester City”, you heard people say, “they were always going to turn us over”. This was echoed by Pardew, who said we can’t compete with sides like Manchester City. Financially, that’s a very sound conclusion, but the fact that we barely gave them a go when Cardiff City beat them, and Hull and Stoke City have defiantly stood up to them, makes you wonder why we so meekly rolled over.
West Ham wasn’t much better. A lacklustre performance without a single shot on target gave me genuine fear for the season. A clean sheet is always a positive, particularly when my favourite pest, Kevin Nolan (*sob*), spent the whole game lurking in dangerous areas, as he does, waiting to pounce. But our non-existent striking options were there for all to see. I was sure that would kick the club into gear and give them fire to hotly pursue a striker of some sort, but of course it never happened.
By the time the Fulham game rolled round, I was feeling like I didn’t know where a goal would come from this season, never mind a win. However, in the second half, there was some excellent attacking football on show. Pardew has, hopefully, finally realised that Moussa Sissoko works best in his own position of central midfield (a player, working best in their own position, who knew?!) because he sliced through the middle of the pitch like Fulham weren’t there. However, this game was, in many ways, just as frustrating as West Ham because we. just. couldn’t. get. it. in. the. net. By 83 minutes we’d had about 10 chances in 10 minutes and I was resigned to the fact that it was going to be one of those days that we experienced so often last season, where we camp in the opposition’s half and have chance after chance, but come away with little to nothing. Enter Hatem Ben Arfa who, as outrageously frustrating he can me at times, fired in an absolute beauty and gave us a narrow win that really should have been very wide. The fact that we’d been attacking for most of the second half was at least reassuring.
I made the trip to Aston Villa yesterday wondering whether it was going to be worth my time, effort and money. As much as I kicked and screamed about us signing Remy, still a little stung by his behaviour in January, I was pleased that he was starting. He played a very small part in the Fulham game but every movement he made was exciting. Though he didn’t score yesterday, his movement and positioning is superb, and the skill it took to assist Ben Arfa’s goal – wow. He has a lot of making up to do, but if he continues the way he’s started, I might just forgive him….
What struck me yesterday was that, for the first time in at least a full year, Pardew got his tactics right. He rightly didn’t start a very out of form Tiote, but for once, started a very in-form Anita. I can hear angels singing in my head as I typed that, as Anita has been inexplicably overlooked for a Tiote that has been a liability for quite a while now. He played Sissoko in his correct position, and went for an exciting 4-3-3 with Ben Arfa and Remy in the 3-pronged attack. Somebody has also evidently given the squad a pep talk too, because for the most part they played like a team, which has been a rarity. The whole team had a fantastic game, arguably other than Cisse, who may as well have not been on the pitch for all he contributed. The defence in particular was outstanding. I joked that, after going to Harper’s testimonial and seeing a footballing masterclass, I hoped the current players had been watching. Perhaps they had, because Yanga-Mbiwa was incredibly solid. He echoed the super-pairing of Dabizas and Peacock by tracking back, being in the right place at the right time, throwing himself full force when needed, and generally positioning himself correctly. It’s clear that he’s thriving under the cool leadership of Coloccini, and may those two play together for many years to come.
Debuchy, who has come under a lot of criticism after the Manchester City game, was arguably my MOTM. Like MYM, he intercepted everything at the right time, kept a cool head (which is something of a miracle for him), had great positioning, just did everything fantastically. Nobody could get anything past him. He also contributed to the attacking play, which I absolutely adore being a child of the Keegan days, when defenders attacked more than they defended!
Anita, as always, justified his start. He’s an all-round good egg. He tracked back where necessary, and basically worked as the centre cog in our machine, our holding midfielder who was there to link up every aspect of our play. I was also massively pleased that Gouffran scored. He’s a player I love who can provide so much in attack, but doesn’t quite have the golden touch in front of goal. He’s also brilliant with his positioning and, when the delightful Hatem’s shot was palmed out by the keeper, he coolly slotted it into the net. I think it’ll do wonders for his confidence, as everyone knows he’s not a natural goalscorer.
Naturally after all of that I’m over the moon. But we’ve quickly come under criticism for forgetting all of our summer woes after one good game. Not the case at all. I still want Kinnear and Ashley as far away from our club as physically possible. There are still a lot of things that need to be worked on – Hatem has scored 2 of our 3 goals (in the league) this season, and he’s not the type of player that will pop up every week with a goal. Cisse needs some serious help. But there’s nothing wrong with being over the moon when your team wins a game despite all the negatives around the club. That’s what football is about,