After the first hour of Saturday’s defeat at home to Reading, Newcastle didn’t look like going on to lose the game. Reading hadn’t threatened a lot up til then, before this match they hadn’t won away from home, Newcastle were comfortable in their slim lead. That’s not meant as a criticism of Reading or sour grapes about their win. They took their chances when it mattered, got an important win, and well done to them for that. But how did it happen?
Newcastle had controlled possession in the first half. Possession isn’t necessarily a guide to how a game has gone – see Swansea away last season – but in contrast to that game the team with most of the ball were also in the lead. That is the definition of domination. Though Reading had gained more of a toehold in the game after the restart, it wasn’t as if they were piling on the pressure.
Alan Pardew, worried that the clinching second goal hadn’t come and might never do, decided to hold on to the 1-0 lead at that point. He chose to do that by swapping Marveaux for Perch. Up to then Marveaux had been the one player who had a spark about him, who could beat a man. Taking him off meant that only Jonas, less effective in an attacking sense, remained who could play wide left. So it was a doubly defensive move, Perch brought on to shore up the middle, the more attacking of the left-sided options withdrawn. This gave Reading the green light to get forward, as all of a sudden the Newcastle side no longer looked so threatening. They made an attacking sub, bringing on a goalscorer for a central midfielder. Within a few minutes the move paid off with an equalising goal, the extra defensive capability in central midfield not preventing Reading picking the pass out wide from there which created the opportunity to cross for the goal.
At 1-1 Pardew was forced into removing Cabaye, who he’d been notified was struggling at half time. With this knowledge he surely should have took off Cabaye rather than Marveaux previously, but that not having happened Newcastle ended up with Bigirimana and Perch in central midfield. Anita was pushed wide right to replace the mystifyingly selected Shola as he moved to join with Cisse up front. The side had been shorn of creativity and passing quality while simultaneously trying to push on to regain the lead.
Disaster struck when Reading gained the lead soon after. A desperate need to push on left Pardew with little option but to bring on Obertan. This time Anita was sacrificed. Look at the thinking behind that. The ever-improving Anita was having a decent game again but had been pushed wide to accomodate the two subs, a position he isn’t so effective in. The obvious place for Obertan to go was wide right directly up against Ian Harte who was slow ten years ago. Why Obertan wasn’t considered for a start in these circumstances I can’t explain. The choice of Anita to come off was an object lesson in orthodoxy and ego on Pardew’s part. Of the four midfielders on the pitch, Anita is far and away the most accomplished, being twice the player of Perch or Bigirimana. He was also having a better game than any of them. Jonas had to stay at that point because we needed a man on each flank. Removing either of the subs in the centre would have shown up Pardew’s previous bad decisions and conventionally subs are rarely subbed themselves, but the right decision at that point would have been to remove either Perch or Bigirimana. As it turned out Newcastle were left without anyone who could pick a pass in the middle of the park, and that made it almost impossible to get back into the game.
Pardew’s comments that the fans spread negativity onto the pitch were misguided. The truth is the negativity started in the dugout with his choices of substitutions. It’s a tactic that can work in the right circumstnces, but you have to have the players available to pull it off. Newcastle’s poor defensive record suggests that defensive options which can’t make the team won’t necessarily provide any more solidity. The fact of the matter is that Newcastle’s squad options just aren’t good enough to rely on. Hindsight is a fine thing, but knowing what we do now I don’t think we would have done any worse had Pardew gone home at half time and subs had been restricted to injuries. Sometimes you can be too clever and Pardew managed to compound this by being too proud to reverse his mistakes even partially when presented with the opportunity. We just have to hope that Pardew can come back from his bad day and turn things around because a result like Saturday is one that can plunge a club into a nose dive. There doesn’t seem to be a win anywhere on the horizon and he needs to change that.