After an excellent campaign last year Alan Pardew has to decide whether to stick with the system that proved so successful or make changes to get the best out of his Senegalese forward pairing. Pardew’s Newcastle team started the season playing an organised 4-4-2 formation with two wingers supplying a two man forward line including Demba Ba, who scored fifteen goals in the first nineteen league games. However, following the signing of Papiss Cisse in January Pardew switched the team to a 4-3-3 system, playing the new recruit through the centre and moving Ba wide left. While Cisse went on to score thirteen times in fourteen games, Ba netted only once more in fifteen appearances.
Ba has made no secret of his frustration at being played out wide and Pardew has suggested that he would consider switching back to a front two to get the best out of the striker and keep an important player happy. While the prospect of Ba and Cisse firing in tandem is enticing, whether Pardew makes the change will ultimately come down to his reason for moving to 4-3-3 in the first place. The likely causes were twofold: the threat of being overrun by the prevalence of three-man midfields in the league and the form of Hatem Ben Arfa. Ben Arfa certainly provides Pardew with a dilemma. The winger’s qualities demand inclusion as a genuine match-winner but a lack of defensive discipline makes him an uncomfortable fit in a structured four-man midfield, whereas playing within a front three allows the Frenchman the freedom to influence the game across the pitch. Should Newcastle move back to a 4-4-2 to get more from Ba it may be at the expense of Ben Arfa.
Aside from the effect on two individuals, the other consideration is the midfield issue. It is possible that over half of the teams in the Premier League this season will regularly line up with three man midfields, and many of the others will play with a deep forward or narrow wingers to make up the numbers in the centre of the pitch. Should Newcastle return to playing with genuine wingers and two out-and-out strikers they could leave their midfield of Cheik Tiote and Yohan Cabaye a little exposed. It may be that Jonas Gutierrez tucks in on the left and Ben Arfa is given the freedom to attack from either flank.
Whatever the manager decides, he has instilled a work ethic into his players that would suggest Newcastle can make a variety of systems work. Pardew has tended to prefer systems with a degree of symmetry and structure but he may have to relax this philosophy if he is to get the best out of the attacking talent at his disposal whilst maintaining defensive solidity.