By Natasha Bougourd
So, when last I blogged, we'd overcome a fairly average Aston Villa side with aplomb and all of our stars showed what they were capable of. Fast-forward a week and we were beaten by a Hull City side we undoubtedly saw as an easy-to-beat team.
Complacency against sides tipped for relegation is kind of our thing – Reading beat us at fortress St James’ in January, Wigan were something of a bogey team in recent years, and in 07-08, we gave THAT Derby County side over a quarter of their points total for the season. We beat a feisty Leeds side in the cup but have since been knocked out by Manchester City. A dreadful performance at Everton saw us return from Merseyside with nil pois, but we then convincingly beat Cardiff a week later – well worth a 15-hour round trip. We stood up to a fantastic Liverpool side and held them to a draw with ten men for most of the game, a match I’m particularly proud of, then we suffered the dreaded derby defeat. As I type this, I’m still full of joy at beating Chelsea 2-0 this weekend. The Newcastle United rollercoaster, ey?
(Now I’m not the type to only pop up when we’ve won convincingly which may seem the case right now. I’d planned on a blog before the Liverpool game but I’ve sadly been a wee bit too busy.) But this little gap gives me something to work with. Why, oh why can we go from seemingly unstoppable, to being annihilated a week later?
Consistency has never been a thing for us. Even when we stormed the Championship, there were still some shock defeats spattered about. Blackpool stopped us going on a lengthy unbeaten league run by beating us 2-1 at Bloomfield Road in September of that season, and then we got a hammering from…wait for it…Derby County again! Even when we finished 5th two seasons ago we had our traditional December dip and we finished the season with a whimper, suffering defeats to Wigan (4-0. Yes, you read that right), Manchester City and Everton in a short few weeks. So what’s going on?
There’s no doubt we underestimate the so-called “smaller” teams, as I’ve mentioned earlier. We could have scored five or six against Hull in September, but due to our distinct lack of firepower up top (Remy netted our two goals that day, but he’s not a one man band), we couldn’t get the ball in the net. We’re no stranger to not burying chances we should, we just sit back and invite pressure in the second half of matches, which is what we did that day and paid the price for it. It’s been a bugbear of mine since early last season, as for me, inviting pressure is only going to end up in conceding a goal. We usually do, and yet these tactics are persisted with time and time again by Alan Pardew, a man I don’t think I’ll ever understand.
But if you look at our two standout performances in this period of time, against Liverpool and Chelsea at home, we did the exact opposite. We gave Liverpool a good go in the first half and upon Yanga-Mbiwa’s sending off, I thought we were done for. Liverpool have built a top side this season and I was sure we’d be punished by them. I anticipated another 6-0. But the lads came out fighting and, granted, we conceded two goals. That can only be expected when you’ve had a defender sent off and had to use a young full-back (with a remarkably wise head on his shoulders, might I add), out of position because all of your other full backs are injured. But what impressed me most is that we still attacked and pressed for goals. Hatem Ben Arfa was a joy to watch in the false nine and bamboozled the Liverpool defenders constantly.
Fast-forward to this past weekend and you’ll see something similar, minus a sending off. Pardew may have finally accepted that this ‘attack in the first half, defend in the second half’ thing doesn’t work, so we did the opposite. We, in Pardew’s words, soaked up pressure in the first half. AKA we let them attack and were very lucky to not concede; Chelsea have some fantastic firepower and our sheer sloppiness on the ball was unacceptable. I wandered into the cover at half-time soaked to the skin and not very happy about it. The second half, however, we stuck it to ’em. The side seemed to come to life and we pressed them until their backs were against the wall. He gets some criticism but Sissoko ran the whole Chelsea side ragged with his powerful bursts of speed from nowhere from midfield. He had a few shots himself, one which wasn’t far off, and he provided the ball for a few others. That’s not to say Chelsea didn’t push us right back, but this time we didn’t invite it: we fought back. Those of you who know me will know I’m a big fan of Me Debuchy, and he was outstanding in keeping Chelsea away from goal. Tim Krul made a small handful of fine saves but would have had many more to make were it not for our feisty, body on the line right back. Interception after interception, inch-perfect tackle after inch-perfect tackle. His blocking of Samuel Eto’o’s (a long-time hero of mine) shot on 79 minutes means he has a place in my history books forever.
Mike Williamson also played his part, a man who many tipped to get embarrassed by the flair and talent in Chelsea’s side. He’s your very basic, straightforward defender, too basic for some but just right for me. He handled Hazard and co as if they were nothing more than Sunday league players. Our first goal was, admittedly, an excellent idea by Pardew and a great, brave header from Gouffran, who had worked his socks off and created so much in this game. The second involved some fine skill. Anita and Obertan, two sorely overlooked players, played a fantastic little one-two to the left of the box, then Anita skipped towards the box, was impeded but incredibly kept going, and slipped the ball to Remy who produced a fine finish, and is slowly winning me round.
So what’s the lesson here? I’ve been critical of Pardew this season and will continue to do so, in a backhanded compliment kind of way. Time and time again he’s stuck with tired tactics and they’ve more often than not seen us fall at the last hurdle, sometimes even at the first, a la Everton. However, when he switches it up, and rarely does he do so, it works. Attacking in the second half works far better than defending and allowing the other side to take advantage. So please Mr Pardew, stick with these new and improved tactics next weekend.