What a difference a summer makes. After signing for Newcastle in the January 2012 transfer window, Cisse embarked on an unprecedented scoring run of 13 goals in 14 games before the season’s end. The signing had been a classic example of when Mike Ashley’s technique in the transfer market succeeds. There had been rumours of interest the previous summer but the price then had been too much. Then, without any rumours having surfaced in the media, a situation the local press pack will privately inform you is down to there being no relationship whatsoever between journalists and those at the club, Cisse was signed for roughly half the price that had been circulated in the summer. His sensational form thereafter, including scoring the BBC’s Goal of the Season at Chelsea, was convincing proof that here was a player who could take the club to the next level. His form was a major factor in the club qualifying for the Europa League. Since the new season began however, he’s been a shadow of the player who’d taken the league by storm, and the goals haven’t even looked like coming, only managing 2 in his first 12 league games.
What’s gone wrong? Maybe his first months at the club were a fluke. He could have been found out by Premier League defences unfamiliar with him last year. Have Newcastle started using him a different way to last season? Perhaps he’s just out of form. Or it might just be that he’s been unable to ride out a general malaise.
When he arrived he was no unknown quantity, or any kind of gamble. He’d consistently performed in the Bundesliga for Freiburg, a middle-table side, over a couple of seasons. The vein of form he struck on arrival was merely a continuation of that he’d been enjoying in Germany. If anything’s a fluke it’s his form at the start of this season, not that at the end of last.
Has he been found out then, or just lost form? I find it difficult to believe that defenders have seen a way of blotting out his threat. Not just one set of defenders but every set Newcastle have come up against so far have seen the same flaw, worked out a way to combat it and managed to implement it perfectly? I don’t think so. Cisse was no tap-in merchant last season. Goals from through balls, crosses, outrageous long-range efforts, composed use of time and instinctive first-time finishes all featured. Each different string to his bow makes him that bit more difficult to shut out. Were his game all about pace behind the defence, the opposition could play a deep line. If it was aerial prowess alone that brought his success, teams could attempt to cut off the supply from the flanks or stop him getting a run at crosses. Cisse is a natural finisher and to combat that other teams would have to prevent him getting the ball anywhere near the goal, near impossible to do.
As for his form, the best thing that could be said for his performances so far this season would be that he’s been anonymous. Barely noticeable in some games, in mitigation is that his game is all about goals. When he’s not scoring he’s not creating chances for others, or running defences ragged. How many games last season would you have said he did very little apart from score his then customary goal?
The orthodox view of Newcastle’s problems is that Alan Pardew has ditched the 4-3-3 system he hit upon soon after the purchase of Cisse which accommodated his best players, in favour of a 4-4-2 to allow Demba Ba to play in his favoured role through the middle along with Cisse. I’ve heard it said that Newcastle only played a 4-3-3 on four occasions last season, but I don’t think that stat, if it is accurate, takes account of the number of times Pardew switched formations during a game. Maybe Newcastle didn’t start that way as often as people think, but they did finish games as popularly imagined. That way brought Hatem Ben Arfa, Newcastle’s most creative player, into games higher up the pitch on the right than a 4-4-2 commonly allowed. Ba was able to contribute effectively from the left without managing to keep up his own goalscoring record, and a central midfield 3 of Tiote, Cabaye and Jonas prospered against sides who didn’t match them numerically. It’s not that Cisse & Ba can’t play together as a pair necessarily though they’re not always selected together up front for Senegal. It’s more that playing with a front 3 suited Newcastle’s personnel generally last season. That being said, Newcastle have been just as poor in either formation this season, so the solution’s not as simple as a tactical one.
The truth of the matter is that the team as a whole hasn’t pulled up any trees so far this term. Injuries, extra games, less rest between matches, all seem to have contributed to the loss of form of pretty much every one of Newcastle’s top players. To single out Cisse seems churlish when Cabaye’s through balls to him have been largely absent, when Tiote’s given the ball away by habit and Coloccini’s regressed on occasion to his 08/09 form. We rely on them too much, especially when we miss each’s best form so badly. Squad strengthening seems the only solution.