When was the last time Newcastle had back-to-back results as impressive as the victories against Chelsea at home and Tottenham away in their last two games? Two teams in the top four, both big spenders in the summer, both defeated by Pardew’s Poundlanders. Newcastle’s sub-prime swashbucklers also managed two clean sheets to add to the light-headedness. Anyone who can truthfully say they were expecting that has a completely different view on football to anything I recognise.
Both games involved periods of backs-to-the-wall defiance. Strong, committed performances then, with hard work and organisation to the fore. Married to that was the intention to get forward when possible and some excellent creative passing and forward play. Against Chelsea, Newcastle grew into the game, getting better the longer it went on, culminating in two second-half goals that really couldn’t have come at better times. In the victory at Spurs, an early goal was followed by a battling display to hold out, something Newcastle have struggled to do over the last couple of years even against lesser opposition. So things are looking up.
For the first time since 2011-12, when qualification for the Europa league was built upon a defensive solidity which then enabled the team to become more expansive in its play, Newcastle’s defence has shown signs of regaining something like that form. The success of 2011-12 was also a function of the ability to field a settled defensive unit whenever possible and there appears to be a partnership developing between Mike Williamson and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa at the heart of the defence. Williamson has been the subject of much criticism but neither Yanga-Mbiwa nor Fabricio Coloccini naturally attack the ball and the current mixture seems to work better than a pairing of the more lauded duo has up to now. The form of Mathieu Debuchy and Tim Krul has coincided and added to that of the unit. A recovery of the ability to regularly avoid conceding would go a long way to dragging Newcastle back up the table.
Without wishing to belittle the achievement of the last couple of weeks though, both games could so easily have gone another way. Better finishing from the opposition could have seen Newcastle slip to fairly demoralising defeats. There’s no doubt their finishing was affected by the quality and commitment in the defending and goalkeeping, but even so these were knife-edge results rather than total domination or shut-outs gained from a vice-like grip on a game. It’s fair enough to be delighted and encouraged by these results, but it’s still too early in the upturn to get carried away.
The upcoming fixtures against Norwich and West Brom, both at home, are vital to how the rest of the season pans out. We’re all aware that keeping clean sheets, just like winning games, is a habit that good teams get into. For all that there’s been an element of good fortune to the last two results, the boost in morale and confidence they’ll provide is incalculable. If Newcastle can keep the form going, both defensively and in terms of results, then they will genuinely be in the middle of an impressive run and that will set them up for difficult away games at Swansea and Manchester United, and the season to follow.
Following Newcastle prepares you for disappointment in life but for all the many criticisms of Alan Pardew, the one that really sticks is a lack of consistency. The suspicion is that the players on the books should be able to achieve more than they generally do. Throughout his tenure as manager there’s been a smattering of surprisingly great results but only in 2011-12 did he truly manage to get his team to build a lengthy run of form. Each of those great results have generally been followed by three or four dismally uninspired games. Time after time a timid Newcastle have sat back and surrendered the initiative, and as a consequence have found it difficult to impose themselves on a game. Pardew will never have a better opportunity to change the minds of those whose minds are still open to reassessing him and his team, by breaking the cycle of inconsistency and consolidating some unexpectedly good recent results.