When Papiss Cisse came on as a half time substitute away to Sunderland at the weekend, the decision made some sense – in theory, anyway. Losing 0-1, not creating many openings, get a striker on to increase our options. Yet did any of you genuinely look at Cisse and think he was a likely scorer? I must admit, I’d spent most of the first half getting more and more frustrated with Sissoko.
Whether it was his fault or Pardew’s (for playing him out of position) it felt like he kept being the sticking point as we broke forward. He’d lumber around in attacking positions, slowing things down and giving their equally lumbering defence the chance to regroup. Tiote was doing well enough in his holding role so Sissoko was an obvious candidate to take off. My choice would have been Anita to replace him – a more lively option, more movement, more invention, keeps play going.. However, Pardew went for Cisse. It meant more of a reshuffle but at least on paper it gave us another goalscoring threat.
Yet this comes back to my original point. Was Pardew introducing a goalscoring threat? Or was he effectively reducing us to ten men for the whole of the second half? If you take that view, then you’d have to praise the man for his charitable outlook on life as he reduced us to nine men shortly after the equaliser by replacing Remy with Shola. Anyway, I digress. In bringing on Papiss Cisse, Pardew – unfortunately for us – wasn’t introducing the sparkling livewire who scored 13 in his first 14 games for us. He was introducing the increasingly forlorn, desperate liability who has now gone 7 months since he last scored a league goal. Much has been said before about the reasons behind Cisse’s decline and much of it is valid too – he’s an instinctive player, all about confidence and spur-of-the-moment decisions. If the goals aren’t coming then he has shown himself to have a tendency to try and force himself back into form by going for outrageous, spectacular efforts. It worked at home to Southampton last season but that strike was one among many such efforts. This isn’t what you want your number 9 to be doing, of course. His main role is to be a cutting edge, not to produce 3 or 4 screamers per year. His goals total last season was propped up to some extent by a decent tally in Europe but the fact is that he managed 8 goals in 37 league games. This season he’s failed to score in 8.
Players decline, yes. Players can be “worked out” by opposing defences, yes. But when you look at Cisse’s career stats, this run of 8 goals in 45 league games is a million miles away from any run of poor form he’s had before. Besides, at what point does “poor form” become an altogether deeper issue?
Rather than going for an all out attack on Cisse’s ability as a player, or indeed on Pardew and his backroom staff’s (in)ability to coach players, I thought I’d take a slightly different approach. Cast your mind back, please to 29th January 2013.Fresh from an injection of a lorryload of French players we arrived at Villa Park with renewed confidence and suddenly produced a much-improved performance alongside a badly-needed victory. Papiss Cisse scored a significant goal on that pivotal evening. No, it wasn’t his last league goal for us (he’s managed 3 more since then. 3 more since the end of January.), but this goal wasn’t just significant for Cisse as much as it was for the whole team. Because that opening goal at Villa Park was the last time (in the Premier League we scored perhaps the most basic of goals – the through ball from midfield to put the striker clean through on goal. 31 league and cup games later and we haven’t managed to score even one goal of that type. Much has been made of our lack of goals direct from corners in recent years but for me this stat is of much greater concern. Corners are a fairly straightforward affair with an element of lottery to them. We could be doing better, of course, but tactics shouldn’t be built around set-pieces. However, the thought that in 31 games since that night at Villa Park we haven’t once managed to play a striker in behind the defence to score is a real worry, and is perhaps as big a factor as any in Cisse’s decline. That “threaded through ball” from central midfield just isn’t happening.
Cisse plays in a way very reminiscent of how Andy Cole once did for us. His movement is very similar but, much like Cole needed a selfless partner like Beardsley (or later Sheringham) to be his brains and think one step ahead of him, Cisse simply cannot operate in our current system. In fact, going back to that grim defeat at Sunderland, it worries me that we are fundamentally lacking in terms of the variety of threats we are able to offer. We don’t score from corners, this is a known fact. We effectively play without direct wingers (or an aerial threat up front) so crosses in from wide positions aren’t an option. And, seemingly, we aren’t set up to play incisive through balls for a striker to run onto.
Our attack in open play is becomingly increasingly restricted to someone cutting in from either flank and taking a shot themselves or firing a low or chipped cross in to the centre. The only alternative to that seems to be a spectacular long range effort or piece of skill from Cabaye or Ben Arfa. The obvious problem here is that if we become restricted to one or two channels of attack then we become predictable and therefore easy to defend against. We’re already seeing teams frequently doubling up on Ben Arfa and/or Remy and it’s nullifying us almost completely. Setting all rivalry aside, Sunderland have proven all season to be quite limited defensively and yet we never once got the opportunity to run in behind them.
Feasibly it’s a personnel issue. Pardew spent most of the first half at Sunderland switching players around, rotating the attacking players trying to find a magic formula to bring about a breakthrough. Yet, to me, Cisse is exactly the sort of player to thrive on that kind of opening. He simply isn’t being given them to work with. The team seems to be entirely geared up to working the ball out to the inside left/right channels. We’re fortunate in that we have people like Remy, Ben Arfa and Cabaye who are capable of the occasional piece of brilliance to overcome such predictability but if they have an off day, which they are more than capable of, then there is literally nothing else happening. Just sedate, toothless passing in the central third of the pitch with no movement and no incision.
We’ve scored plenty of goals this season so I appreciate this doesn’t really appear to be a major issue, but predictability is something that opponents quickly work out. And if Pardew’s Plan B is to bring on Shola and go direct then we may as well give up now. Pardew, and perhaps the players, need to learn that “going central” doesn’t have mean “going long”. If Remy and Ben Arfa can create space in wide areas they can do it in central areas, and that can bring Cisse back to life, I’m certain of it.