Mark Brophy

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Think Of A Number: How many Players is enough?

This weekend we saw delight and excitement spread through a strongly peer-reviewed community as the evidence which proved a long-held certainty was finally uncovered. Not the scientific community’s reaction to CERN’s unveiling of the first traces of the Higgs-Boson particle, but the English national media response to Newcastle United’s defeat at Norwich. Along with the 3 previous games that made 1 point from a possible 12 and the sighs of relief from the papers and TV pundits were almost audible as World Football’s rightful order was restored and everyone could get back to being justified in ignoring Newcastle apart from as light relief from the serious stuff. It had to happen didn’t it? Everyone knew they couldn’t keep it up.

What do those 4 games prove though? Defeat at Man City, swaggering champions-elect, was followed by a typically hard-fought draw at Man Utd, an element of good fortune aiding the point gained. The weekend after, a defeat to Chelsea at home was made more emphatic when both centre-halves were forced off with injury. Key defenders Coloccini and Steven Taylor, along with cover Mike Williamson, also missed the latest defeat to Norwich, when all 4 opposition goals came from balls delivered from wide into the box for headers. It’d be fair to say that Newcastle proved to be not quite up to successfully challenging the established Champions League clubs, and that Newcastle’s makeshift back 4, lacking a single established centre-half, were also similarly unsuccessful in challenging Norwich’s aerially adept strikeforce. They were unable to overcome an injury crisis at the heart of their defence against a newly-promoted side.

That’s not a crash, a crumbling, a bubble popping or a club in freefall. It’s not even the usual story of a club with a small squad struggling as the odd injury or suspension deprives them of a player from the first eleven. This is a genuinely unusual situation, three centre halves simultaneously injured,  which would cause any club in the league to struggle. The very top clubs might struggle through because of the quality of their utility and youth players, but maybe not. Jose Mourinho once mentioned his ideal at Chelsea to have 2 top-class players in his squad for each position. Even that oligarch-funded largesse would result in only 4 centre-halves in the squad, and 3 injuries there would trouble even that arrangement unless the full-backs were comfortable in the middle. In addition, Newcastle’s first-choice and reserve holding midfielder are also out. It’s no surprise their defensive solidity has been compromised.

Newcastle’s squad is undeniably short in that area however. Beyond the 3 injured players lie Tamas Kadar in the reserves, obviously deemed not ready for Premier League action, and various youth-teamers. Those selected on Saturday were Simpson, a full-back without the height to be commanding in the air, and Perch, a utility player again more known as a full-back. If fault is to be assigned to anyone it would have to be to those making the decisions not to get another centre-back in the summer. Kadar does not count as the 4th squad man if he is not selected when the 3 ahead of him are injured. If Perch was assigned that squad role in their calculations then the fault is not one of providing too thin a squad or even in judging him capable of that role if he is not. I say if in his case because the 4th choice in any position is always going to be less effective than the first-choice pairing, which I’d suggest is a fair assessment of his capabilities. The problem is as much in being unable to pair him with one of those first-choice selections as in his own weaknesses.

Of course, a big-money buy in the summer would have eased some of these problems. Newcastle could possibly have afforded it without violating their self-sufficiency aim. Let’s presume the Andy Carroll money is long gone. How happy that star would have been to watch Coloccini and Taylor for 15 games as Santon has had to watch Ryan Taylor and Simpson, is another issue.

In the short term there is hope. Mike Williamson came through 45 minutes of reserve action on Tuesday night and may be available to play against Swansea. His reserve partner was Kadar who may also come into the reckoning. Most of all, Swansea themselves aren’t a side to bombard the opposition area with high balls so the main weakness of our back line as exposed by Norwich is unlikely to come under the same scrutiny this weekend.

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