An astonishing tale emerged from an Alan Pardew press conference in the week just gone. “Senior players” had complained about Hatem Ben Arfa’s workrate and discipline, and expressed the view that he didn’t currently merit a place in the starting line-up at Newcastle. Astonishing, that Pardew felt going public with this would help the situation. Some things are best kept within the squad and coaching staff and this is undoubtedly one of them. There appears to be no reason for it, other than to prepare the ground for a summer sale of someone who is one of Newcastle’s most popular performers, for all his problems. Any possibly necessary kick up the behind could have been administered in private, and probably would have been more effective for having been applied in that way. Publicly shaming a player is unlikely to make him want to work harder for the group.
Putting aside the wisdom or otherwise of the public discussion, there’s a more pressing issue to think about. Who are these senior players, and who do they think they are to pronounce on the performance of others and the worthiness of others to be selected alongside them? Cheick Tiote went over a year between good performances very recently. Moussa Sissoko might spend his time more profitably practising trapping the ball and passing it. Fabricio Coloccini was another who went years without performing well, and by definition has lacked commitment to the club’s cause while spending over a year attempting to arrange his exit from it. Mathieu Debuchy, who joined in large part to play with a friend who has now departed, is another who would seem likely to be looking for a way out. Papiss Cisse is a striker who doesn’t score goals any more. Neither Shola Ameobi nor Steven Taylor have been able to force their own way into the side because of very visible shortcomings. Newcastle’s senior players are the last people who should have a say in who merits a place in the first team. Without many exceptions they would be better trying to improve their own performances. More generally, player power isn’t usually a good influence on selection or disciplinary issues. It’s why player-managers are so rarely successful, there needs to be a certain separation of concerns for someone to see clearly what needs to happen.
That’s not to say Ben Arfa is blameless. It seems to be acknowledged by all that his physical condition isn’t good enough and that is a shameful state of affairs for a professional sportsman. He is being paid to be ready for selection when he is out of the team and we are told he is not. Notwithstanding that, it is noticeable that it has taken the introduction of a supposedly unfit Ben Arfa from the bench to inject some quality, urgency and penetration into the team in the last two home games against Palace and Everton. Williamson, Mbiwa and Sissoko make up one whole side of the team who look uncomfortable on the ball and for all that Newcastle have tried to pass it more this year, those kinds of failings in the personnel make it very difficult to have an incisive passing game. The changes that have been made part way through those recent games have each time made an improvement. Anita, unable to pick a forward pass from the middle, is a tidy enough player and looks more suited at right back than Mbiwa. Ben Arfa wide in place of Sissoko has provided some trickery and the possibility of getting behind the opposition back line. Marveaux in the centre of midfield was more successful than Anita in driving the side forward. Unfortunately the management and coaching staff just don’t trust these players and their inconsistencies so we appear to be fated to continue in similar vein until the end of the season.
All this provokes questions on what may happen this summer, which looks like being a very difficult period for both club and fans. Newcastle have a recent history of dispensing with the services of high earners unable to justify their wage. Senior players unable to hold down a place in the team seem particularly at risk. Jonas, already out on loan, seems likely to leave permanently. If the outlay on Vurnon Anita can be recouped it will be remembered that there has been little sign of any reason to wish to keep him. Ben Arfa and Sylvain Marveaux are victims of their own inability to fit into the team but just as much of the management’s failure to find a way to use them. Both will be in demand should they become available. We need to determine if Papiss Cisse can return to something like his previous form and to that end he needs to play every minute of every game between now and May, even if that means playing the inevitably departing Loic Remy, currently our best player, wide or even not at all. It’d be a surprise if Debuchy didn’t leave for a sizeable fee. Why would he want to stay? Gosling and Shola are out of contract this summer and though I think there’s a player to be discovered within Gosling, he has to make more of an impact on the team and soon. If Coloccini gets his way he’ll be off though I’m not convinced that will happen as he won’t command a large enough fee because of his age to make us want to sell. Sissoko and Mbiwa have both disappointed, but maybe they need to be played in their correct positions for us to see the best of them. Suffice to say it appears that the squad will be broken up to some extent.
Problems will also exist on the recruitment front, in addition to any basic unwillingness to spend. The initial successes of Graham Carr were in identifying talent available at a rock-bottom price, but just as important a part of the success was in persuading those players to sign. A wage hike for players arriving from lower-paid leagues would have helped make a few minds up, but prospective buys were also swayed by the idea that Newcastle were building towards something, hopefully the Champions League, the end which Carr’s means were aiming towards. Now it has become clear to all, both current players and possible future ones, that this is not the case. Newcastle are going nowhere and the only reason to sign is to play on a stage where bigger clubs might notice. That isn’t going to tempt players of the same calibre as before, and that’s worrying when you’re depending on selling your best players at the highest possible price and replacing with cheaper ones who are just as capable as those who depart.
The inescapable conclusion is that a side who look like struggling next season even if they stay as they are will most likely get worse due to summer transfers. Whether that means a relegation struggle in a league with few teams of quality in it is anyone’s guess, but 10 points fewer at this stage would see Newcastle looking below them rather than up, and it wouldn’t take much of a deterioration to result in that. The challenge to avoid this then, is to pull a few rabbits from the hat on the transfer front as to be fair the club has repeatedly done in recent years. The sad and worrying difference this summer is that the target is to stay clear of the bottom rather than pushing on.