Michael Cox assesses how the former Palace man has turned around the Magpies' previously leaky rearguard...
Alan Pardew has now been in charge of Newcastle United for three years, and this weekend’s fixture is a fine way to celebrate – Newcastle travel to Crystal Palace, the club where Pardew made his name as a player.
Newcastle are on a fine run of form under Pardew – aside from a surprise 3-0 defeat at Swansea, a much closer match than the scoreline suggests, recent performances have been excellent. Newcastle currently top the ‘form table’ with 13 points from their most recent six Premier League matches, alongside Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City.
But whereas those clubs have excelled at attacking, scoring 16, 19 and 22 goals respectively in those six games, Newcastle have concentrated on defence. They’ve bagged just seven in their last six, and have been the masters of the one-goal victory.
To understand why Newcastle are neither scoring nor conceding many, the best place to look is up front. Many expected Pardew’s favoured front two this season to be Papiss Cisse with Hatem Ben Arfa just behind, but instead he’s preferred a combination of Loic Remy and Shola Ameobi. Remy provides the pace and has been in fine goalscoring form, while Ameobi battles aerially and holds up the ball.
More interesting are their roles without the ball, though. An old-school 4-4-2 rarely works these days because sides become overrun in the centre of midfield, but Pardew has responded to this problem by asking his forwards to play extremely strict defensive duties without the ball, almost as extra midfielders. It’s rare for either Ameobi or Remy to press the opposition centre-backs, and instead they drop off and keep Newcastle compact. Remy is particularly good at this, often winning possession in deep positions to the left of centre.
Primarily, the duo's job is to deny passes from the opposition centre-backs into the central midfielders – preventing their opponents playing out intelligently from the back. It means under-pressure defenders are forced to go wide, or hit longer balls towards attackers.
This was particularly obvious during Newcastle’s fine 1-0 victory over Chelsea, when Ramires and Frank Lampard had to work extremely hard just to find space on the halfway line and collect possession. On that occasion the problem was David Luiz, who could step forward from centre-back to hit forward passes, but few Premier League sides have a defender with as much technical quality as the Brazilian.
Like many good sides, Newcastle’s defensive work starts from the front – although it’s difficult to deny the fact Ameobi and Remy’s tactical roles mean they find it more difficult to attack. Although Remy has been hot in front of goal, he often finds it difficult to sprint beyond opponents at turnovers because he is too far from their defensive line. It means Newcastle are often more dangerous when their counter-attacks flow through other players, allowing him forward to break in behind.
Ameobi’s role is more about holding up the ball, and his deeper position can be effective because he receives the ball in space, and forces the opposition centre-backs up the pitch in an attempt to close him down. This can create space for others to run into, and Remy looks better alongside the Nigeria international than with Cisse.
The best sides are extremely universal – the attackers help defend, the defenders help attack. Newcastle are moving in this direction, although they lack centre-backs capable of creating moves.
Still, the role of full-backs Mathieu Debuchy and Davide Santon has been important in recent weeks – against Manchester United, for example, Debuchy had a couple of dangerous attempts on goal, while Santon dribbled forward down the left with success. Ultimately Newcastle have become a more well-rounded side.
The key is the forwards, however, and it will be interesting to see how Pardew uses them against Tony Pulis’ Crystal Palace this weekend. Palace play Pulis’ typical brand of long-ball football, and Remy and Ameobi’s attempts at stopping passes into midfield may become irrelevant – they’ll simply encourage Palace’s centre-backs to continue hitting the ball Marouane Chamakh quickly.
Therefore, Remy and Ameobi’s roles might have to change. If Newcastle are to continue their march up the Premier League table, Pardew must get these types of decisions correct.