The ultimate kick in the teeth: Newcastle lose a home derby while chasing the victory, to a winner scored in the last minute of normal time when their local rivals broke up the pitch and caught them with a sucker punch. That makes it sound like a stroke of bad luck which of course isn’t the whole story.
This was a game which initially followed a pattern we’re so familiar with. After a bright start in which the players looked enthusiastic and sharp, the team slowly settled back into a passive mode of play which allowed the opposition the ball. Our midfield sat on the toes of their own back four which meant they didn’t really have any opportunity to get a toehold in the game, either through closing down Sunderland’s midfield or by working the ball forward when we had possession. That possession was inevitably short-lived then. Our lone striker again was hopelessly isolated though the increasingly impressive Ayoze Perez made an infinitely better fist of it than anyone else has this season. After the opening quarter of an hour the game stayed like this until the hour mark.
Gouffran was replaced by Adam Armstrong then, and for about 15 minutes we played a 4-4-2. Two strikers! Playing up front! TOGETHER! I don’t want to go all tactics bore on you at this point, but this was our best spell of the game. Sammy Ameobi began to show he had the beating of Sunderland’s right back, we pushed on, and looked the more likely of the two sides to win the game. Our best chances came in this short period, both Armstrong and Perez managing to shoot straight at the keeper with only him to beat. I’d say it was the most aggressive substitution Pardew had made in a good couple of years, but it would be outstripped mere minutes later.
With 15 to go Cheick Tiote came off to be replaced by Papiss Cisse. From then on I have no idea what formation we were trying to play or who was stationed where. For Kevin Keegan it would have been a gamble. For someone as conservative as Pardew it struck me as a brainstorm, a breakdown in his thinking. At one point, with everyone else pushed forward already, Steven Taylor ran with the ball into midfield leaving Colo one-on-one with Fletcher. I’m not sure if that move breaking down led to their goal, but they certainly broke dangerously and outnumbered us at the back a couple of times before they managed to actually score. There had been warning signs, certainly. It might have come off in our favour as well I suppose. Those are the breaks.
So why did he do it? A major criticism of him has been that he has no Plan B. We sit back, attempt to frustrate and try to nick one. If it doesn’t happen we take the point. But today caution was thrown to the gale-force wind. You will perhaps also be aware of the concept of ‘Pardewing’ someone. This is the idea that whatever good there is in a player who arrives at the club, it will be removed by Pardew. Whatever spark or flair they had and briefly displayed on arrival would disappear within weeks. They would apparently forget themselves what their own strengths were. The thing is, if Pardew was ever good at anything it was sticking to his plan no matter what. It was caution in the face of all temptation to take a team on. And he threw that away today. I think he listened to the criticism, starting to build again so soon after a run he probably felt would buy him some time as it had before. He listened, and decided he was better than people thought he was, that he could do what they said he couldn’t. He was wrong about that today though, he forgot what it was he did, and it didn’t pay off. He effectively Pardewed himself.
I feel a bit churlish, criticizing Pardew for going gung-ho after two years of saying “We need to move the whole team 20 yards up the pitch” at half-time. But when he’s wrong he’s wrong, in whichever direction. A 3rd party who hadn’t really been paying attention might think he couldn’t possibly win on those terms. Attack or Defend, neither is good enough, they might say. That’s not it at all though. Is this team so poor they can’t engage in a normal game of football, track, tackle, move and pass? I think they’re perfectly capable of taking other teams on. The difference is in the definitions used. Pardew seems to think there is only a binary choice between dogged sponge-like defence and suicidal attack, nothing between. To my mind, taking a side on just entails engaging in the cut and thrust of a game, of not being scared to try. There’s an inferiority complex inherent in Pardew’s approach. He doesn’t think our defence is good enough to be solid without our midfield on top of them to clog up the routes for passes through them. He doesn’t think our midfield is good enough man-for-man to dominate opposition. Maybe he’s right in some of that sometimes, but the answer is to improve the team if so, not condemn them to keep on covering up their inadequacies.