This weekend’s match against WBA has assumed make or break status for both Newcastle and Steve McClaren as the season’s finish line starts to accelerate towards us with no sign of improvement in the club’s fortunes. Poor away form means salvation lies in the 7 remaining home games if there’s to be any. There just aren’t enough left for any of those home fixtures to be wasted.
Previously I’d thought McClaren’s position was unassailable, that Ashley wouldn’t sack him under any circumstances. That’s based on his record of dealing with previous permanent managers, who were each given several lengths of rope and hung themselves with all of them without the owner losing patience. The closest Alan Pardew came to this situation was in 2012/13. With an almost identical record by mid- January of 21pts from 23 matches, Ashley reacted then in exactly the same way as he did this season; he panicked. On both occasions he splashed out and brought in a host of players in the January window to try to stave off the threat of the drop. The difference between 2013 and now is that Pardew’s side gave an immediate positive reaction and went on a run of 4 wins from 6 games. The pressure was off. Without such a reaction, starting this Saturday, Ashley may well not feel so lenient towards McClaren as he did to Pardew. The only time we’ve really stared down the barrel of the gun under Ashley before, he jettisoned caretaker manager Chris Hughton with 8 games to go of our last relegation season. If things go on as they are, there’s every chance Ashley will gamble again rather than let us go down with barely a whimper.
It might seem a strange idea to sack a manager mere days after rubber-stamping his spending £30m on new players but the whole point of our management structure is to avoid the need to clear out players should the manager be changed. Having said that, it may need a few games more to determine if the new players will turn things around. McClaren won’t get another chance at a Premier League job after this so he needs to rack up some wins and fast.
When McClaren was given the job in the summer the sense of us being underwhelmed was palpable. That said, he was an upgrade on the previous two managers then, and that still holds true. However he’s proven unable to change much of what was wrong with the team’s performances before. Newcastle are still unable to take games to the opposition, to dominate teams. They still tend too much towards caution and don’t apply enough pressure without the ball to provoke mistakes from opponents. What passing there is, is too slow, too clumsy and too safe. McClaren also recognised an air of negativity in the dressing room when he arrived which contributes to all this and he attempted to change that by psychology. It hasn’t been a roaring success obviously but perhaps it explains his refusal to spurn a positive spin on any depressing defeat. He knows what’s wrong though, without being able to solve the problem of how to change it. He spoke early in the season of the need to pass it better and pass it more. Possession is the key to domination of games and we do have more possession now, but it’s of the sterile kind that never leads anywhere. It’s killing time rather than killing off the opposition. He also spoke of the need to get the whole team 20 or 30 yards up the pitch as a unit. We don’t sit back quite as much as we habitually did under Pardew but neither have the players embraced the pressing game. Coloccini’s fear of being outpaced means he’s inclined to sit deep no matter what and that has a knock-on effect on everyone else.
Perhaps this lies behind the strange recent misuse of Rolando Aarons. Pressed into service as an emergency left back, perhaps the idea is to drag that whole flank of the team up the pitch by playing a classic winger in a deeper position. Whatever the theory it hasn’t worked, Aarons has looked all at sea while actual experienced defenders like Steven Taylor sit on the bench. Last season every single sub appearance Aarons made was electric. His presence changed our team’s outlook each time. The staid plodding grind of Pardew’s eleven became miraculously transformed into a forward-flowing wave. That boy has got something but we won’t find out what it is while he’s running towards our own goal line.
The team’s impotence isn’t helped by the insistence on playing with a lone front man. None of our strikers are capable of fulfilling the role, either not strong enough, not a good enough finisher, or they don’t hold up play well enough. But play two together as a unit and their strengths could complement each other and improve our results. With Aarons attacking down one wing and Townsend the other, Shelvey pulling the strings and Wijnaldum arriving in the box, there are goals in that team and getting goals is currently our biggest problem. It’s closely followed in the problem stakes by our inability to defend of course but now isn’t the time for timidity. On the few occasions we’ve looked potent this season we’ve also offered teams plenty of opportunities to score themselves. So be it. We do that whether we attack or not so we might as well go for it. Whether McClaren is the man to throw off our shackles I don’t know, but I do know that he’s capable of it. Despite being generally cagey as Boro manager, numerous times when left without a choice after falling behind in their run to the UEFA Cup final in 2006, he repeatedly threw caution to the wind, brought on as many strikers as he could, and it kept on paying off. We’ll know soon enough if he can get the team moving forward. If not he can’t last long.