Newcastle United lost in a purple haze
Newcastle United currently have 14 points from 13 games and sit just four places and four points above the relegation zone. Most worryingly, the club has only one more point than it did at this stage in the relegation season of 2008/09. It’s perhaps too early to fret about league positions, but the rapid decline of a team that achieved so much last season needs to be addressed.
Alan Pardew looks like a man struggling for answers. Fans, too, have differing opinions on solutions. Arguments over whether Newcastle should play 433 or 442 seem particularly pointless, as the side has performed equally badly in both formations so far this season.
For me, the core of the problem is that the playing squad is not good enough. The club has a decent first 11, but very little beyond that. Injured and suspended players can’t be replaced, and underperforming players have no competition. Obviously the squad should have been strengthened in the summer, but the problem goes beyond that missed opportunity and to the club’s overall strategy.
Quoted last month in the Journal and Northern Echo, Derek Llambias said: ‘We’ve made it quite clear to everyone. We have 11 positions that are grade A players or “purples”, as we call them. Then, under them, we have the players who come in to take the positions so the squad gets bigger. Eventually we’ll have 33 players who will be pushing for a first-team position.’
Llambias went on to explain that Fabricio Coloccini and Steven Taylor are ‘purples’ for the centre back roles, with James Perch and Mike Williamson under them. Llambias also stated that Vurnon Anita is a purple, and mentions him playing at right back. With Danny Simpson rapidly running out of contract, that suggests Simpson is surplus to requirements, and not a purple.
We can therefore extrapolate that NUFC’s 11 purples are: Tim Krul; Anita, Davide Santon, Coloccini, Steven Taylor; Cheick Tiote, Yohan Cabaye, Jonas Gutierrez, Hatem Ben Arfa; Demba Ba, Papiss Cisse.
At Southampton, only three of these purples were missing. Coloccini, Cabaye and Ben Arfa are arguably the club’s best three players, but even so the result and performance must cast doubt about the ability and application of the remaining eight purples – and the suitability of the players supposedly ‘pushing’ for first team places.
The term ‘purple’, by the way, seems to be a gambling reference (rather than a narcotic one). That seems wholly appropriate for the Mike Ashley regime, which has gambled, for better and for worse, repeatedly over the past few years. A purple poker chip is a ‘high roller’ chip worth £500. Let’s stick with the poker chip colour references, and call senior reserve players ‘blacks’ (£100) and junior reserves ‘greens’ (£25).
So Perch and Williamson are ‘blacks’, as are the likes of Ryan Taylor, Shola Ameobi, Gabriel Obertan and Sylvain Marveaux. The ‘greens’ include the likes of Gael Bigirimana, Shane Ferguson, Sammy Ameobi and Adam Campbell. Perch, Williamson, Taylor and Shola, I think, are good squad players, and work within Llambias’s definition of players pushing for first team places. Beyond those four, I think we are struggling.
Obertan and Marveaux have had plenty of chances, often against poor opposition, but have failed to deliver. Bigirimana looks incredibly composed for his age, and Ferguson has shown flashes of class, but it feels too early to throw them into the first team. Sammy and Campbell are just too raw. Ideally they should be sent out on loan, but the size of Newcastle’s squad just won’t allow this.
So Llambias’s stated strategy seems flawed. You can’t run a Premier League club with only 11 first team players. Speaking recently on Sky Sports, Ray Wilkins commented that Chelsea have 25 first team players, plus reserves and junior players pushing to get into the first team. Of course Newcastle does not have anything like the resources that Chelsea has, but it indicates the huge gap between the two clubs.
Let’s retain some perspective – realistically, Newcastle United is the seventh or eighth biggest club in the country (based on honours, attendances, turnover etc). So a realistic aim for a Premier League finish is seventh or eighth. Last season’s fifth was an overachievement. The previous season’s 12th was an underachievement. A mid-table finish is acceptable for this club, with European qualification an occasional bonus, but not a regular realistic aim.
However, what is unacceptable is another relegation battle – which the club went through in 2008/09 and lost. Unless bold moves are made to improve the squad in January, the fear is that the fans will be put through that trauma once again. It’s time to rethink the ‘purples’ strategy, ditch the gambling, and approach the remainder of the season with cool heads, clear eyes, full hearts and a determination to set this club on the solid footing that last season seemed within touching distance but currently looks out of grasp.
My NUFC book, Black and White Army, is available now.