As Newcastle enters the Christmas period a strange calm has lowered over Tyneside. Registering four consecutive wins would typically arouse the kind of giddy excitement and anticipation expected only for Christmas day itself. But while various paper based outlets are poking thoughts of another European campaign, the caution amongst supporters is more palpable.
Any given man who enjoys a cautious bet on soccer would have taken the quartet of league fixtures falling from a desperately lacking loss to Sunderland as seven points at best; many viewing that as an optimistic prospect itself. However, the bizarrely erratic performances stretching from August have settled sharply to a smoother more disciplined format where grinding out results has been the order of the day. Whether by design or accident, the strategy has concluded a round of fixtures with a healthy points tally (and healthy squad) to take into the fast flowing Christmas period.
Although players and management alike deserve plaudits for this – some individually, and collectively – the period has also benefited richly from fortunate circumstance needed when attempting to build form – something that deserted NUFC for pretty much the entirety of the season previous. Indeed it may be the events of last season still fresh in the mind that have kept attitudes cautious – or perhaps it’s that despite the comfort of a points tally better than the reigning champions, after a third of the season, the football played hasn’t been exactly been emphatic. A goal difference of +1 is the lowest by comfortable margin to all other teams in positive figures – the problems of scoring goals may have been mostly solved by Loic Remy, but frequently conceding them remains an issue that should not be ignored, even if the results are favourable.
And why not? Should constructive criticism of a winning side be denied simply because the result was 3pts? The win at Tottenham could still be fully enjoyed with a frank and brutal assessment once the day had past of why Tim Krul had so many saves to make – whilst equally appreciating the cutting counter attacks made in the first period that lead to the winning goal. Without honest appraisals of wins as well as defeats we restrict ourselves to at most half of what we could learn – and even if the there is nothing to be gained – an opposition simply too good for us, or a bad day at the office, at least the exercise of review has been conducted with proactive intent in mind.
Even with this mentality however, there is obviously a limit to what this squad can achieve, realistically. The argument that on our day we can take any team at home has weight, although can be misleading in terms of ability when considering the same boost of motivation and effort is what facilitates cup upsets. However, with the team now looking far more settled and solid (if not spectacular), Alan Pardew has a platform to build from with January approaching – and in patches of the team some very real ability. The 442 system stuck with recently may be tied together somewhat loosely – relying up the fitness of Shola Ameobi and the improvisation of Sissoko and Gouffran as wingers – but the important fact is it is a system that is working with more consistency than has been seen of late.
Pardew has made no secret of his preference to play 442, and although this stubbornness has caused us problems before, now is his perfect time to take the successes of our recently starting XI and buying the correct players to improve it. This may mean sacrificing assets such as Papiss Cisse and Hatem Ben Arfa, who would very likely move on to play well elsewhere – and in the latter’s case be very unpopular – but best for the club if the finances were properly invested (a big if). Ultimately genuine rather than accidental progress is more likely to come down to the willingness of Mike Ashley to loosen his highly restrictive grip upon the club – but beyond that, being honest with ourselves wouldn’t be the worst place to start.