Since the departure of Demba Ba to Chelsea, all the focus at Newcastle has been on which forward Alan Pardew will bring in to replace his top scorer. Yet Ba has been at the centre of a twelve month power struggle in the Newcastle attack that has threatened to imbalance the team’s shape, and his departure could allow Pardew to restructure the system.
It is easy to get obsessed with the need to replace Ba’s goalscoring. When he departed, the forward was responsible for over 50% (13/25) of Newcastle’s league goals. But Newcastle being heavily reliant on a solitary goalscorer is nothing new. Last season Ba scored 52% (15/29) of Newcastle’s goals before departing for the African Cup of Nations, and then following his arrival Papiss Demba Cisse scored 59% (13/22) of their goals in the final 15 games.
There is a simple explanation for this reliance. Since returning to the Premier League in 2011 Pardew has juggled his preferred 4-4-2 formation with the necessity for a three man midfield. This has generally resulted in one of Newcastle’s forwards shuttling between a central and wing forward position. The centre forward currently posing less of a goal threat is put into a position where he is even less likely to score.
Neither Ba nor Cisse are comfortable or happy playing wide, but the move to a front three did benefit Hatem Ben Arfa, arguably Newcastle’s best attacking talent. The winger benefits from the greater positional and defensive freedom in a wide forward role rather than as a wide midfielder. Thus Newcastle’s great dilemma for the last year has been how to fit their three star attackers into the team – play 4-4-2 and Ben Arfa is restricted in midfield; play a variation of 4-3-3 and either Ba or Cisse is required to play in an unfamiliar wide role.
Furthermore Ba and Cisse didn’t help their cause to play alongside each other by failing to create an effective partnership. Quite simply the two strikers are too similar, both preferring to lead the line and feed off chances created by others. Newcastle’s other attacking option Shola Ameobi is a weaker player but is a more effective partner to both, offering a physical target capable of flicking the ball on from long balls upfield.
Newcastle can pursue another forward – one that would compliment Cisse’s style – or opt to find a player capable of forming a front three with Ben Arfa. Pardew’s use of a front three allows greater numbers in midfield – Yohan Cabaye and Cheick Tiote are fine players but are often outnumbered in the centre of the pitch. Jonas Gutierrez is capable of tucking in, but Vurnon Anita offers greater solidity. This may be even more important as the arrival of Mathieu Debuchy to play opposite Davide Santon now offers two attacking options from full back.
Newcastle actually have several players in the squad already capable of filling a wing forward berth alongside Ben Arfa and Cisse, but none have convinced thus far. Gutierrez has always been a solid rather than spectacular wide midfielder, and is perhaps more effective in the centre, but Gabriel Obertan and Sylvain Marveaux have failed to deliver on a consistent basis. A quality wide forward capable of scoring and creating goals may prove to be a more useful addition to the team than simply adding another striker.
Pardew’s pursuit of Loic Remy actually supports this point. While Remy is considered a centre forward, he is both capable and comfortable playing as a wide forward, which would have given Newcastle the freedom to switch between 4-4-2 and 4-1-2-3 systems with far greater ease than they have done for the past 12 months.
Clearly there is now a great emphasis on Cisse to rediscover his goalscoring form, especially as at the time of Ba’s departure he had only scored 3 goals in 18 league games this season. However, this stat is slightly misleading as part of the reason Cisse has failed to find the net on a regularly basis is that he has often filled the wide forward role. Although his form is poor he has the ability to take on the goalscoring burden and a return to a central position may be the motivation required.
Pardew has stated that two new signings are needed to prevent a relegation battle, although, given the size of his squad, he would probably have made the same assessment even if Ba had stayed. Newcastle entered the January transfer window sitting in 15th in the table, just 2 points above the relegation zone. The loss of Ba is clearly damaging, but if Pardew can use the money to give his side more balance, it may actually help them stay out of danger.