Is Leon Best the key to a return to form for Newcastle United?
Surely this was the result that canned-story media types were hoping for. Newcastle United, where Gary Speed spent many of his best years was facing off with Swansea City, the first club from Speed's native land to play in the Premiere League. Which side would he choose? Of course he could not extricate himself for his love for both squads and so on the day the match should certainly end in a draw... at least that's my view of how the canned-story type media would have seen it.
For Swansea fans, they'll have viewed this as a great match in which they defended like their hair was on fire and rode a fine save from their goalkeeper and just enough offensive pressure to keep the opponent honest (sound familiar?) and took a point away from s match that they shouldn't have. Fair play them. Newcastle fans have generally taken a more dim view of the result.
Around these parts, we ballyhooed the #StretchOfDoom in which Newcastle faced Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea back to back to back. We, and most of the Toon Army to be fair, failed to include newly promoted Norwich City and Swansea City in this #StretchofDoom, and perhaps the club has as well. Granted that injuries may have actually been the primary mitigating factor in our loss to Norwich City. No such excuse is able to be found for this match, with Captain Colo returning to the lineup (and marauding around the pitch, for that matter), Cheik Tiote returning to the lineup (bringing a semblance of stability to our central midfield finally), and Davide Santon making his home debut at left back in place of Ryan Taylor (which if the potential of the interplay on the left side between he and Jonas didn't get you excited, you may want to check your pulse...). On the day, however, it just wasn't good enough. Check out the highlights, and I'll jump into the numbers and analysis after the jump.
A couple of notes from watching the video:
From the free kick that led to Coloccini's header that went off the post- it was speculated whether Colo should have let the ball run to Ba for a tight-angle shot. I don't know if the linesman would have spotted it, but Ba was in an offside position when the free kick was struck, so even if Ba had gotten the ball and placed it in a more inside the goal direction, it may not have stood anyway.
Leon Best is good for this team. I will discuss later.
Demba Ba - self-creator. I will discuss later.
When Jonas and Santon get on the same page (see absolutely correct run made by Santon at 4:34 not picked out by Jonas), there is hella potential for our left flank.
Davide Santon - man this kid excites me. Check out 6:12. Shola Ameobi (who had just come on), picks out Santon, then finds some space and calls for the return ball. Santon absolutely correctly holds the ball for two or three more strides then plays a perfectly weighted through-ball back to Shola, who frankly should have finished a little more strongly. I'm not entirely certain that Shola wasn't trying to pick out Ba instead of shooting. GO TO GOAL, SHOLA! But still... ball decisions in the lead-up were absolutely correct in this sequence.
Diving into the stats and numbers:
If I had told you before the match that we would split the possession essentially 50/50 with a 61/39 territorial advantage while out-shooting Swansea 22 to 3, you would have thought that we would have walked away comfortable winners. All of those figures came to be, and the result did not, in fact, turn out with Newcastle on top. Part of the problem: Only 3 shots ended up on net, and a further 5 were blocked by Swansea. 2 more hit the post. Where Newcastle and Demba Ba in particular had been fairly efficient in front of goal previously, they were definitely not in this match. Demba had 8 attempts on goal; two were blocked, two on target and four off target.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have never been much in the Leon Best camp... until he came back. During the Swansea match, it was quite evident that Leon Best is a vital cog in the Newcastle attack. Without being able to quantify it through pictures or numbers it is difficult to prove, but in viewing the match, you can see- this squad knows how to find Leon Best. Yohan Cabaye in particular could find Leon Best in a Where's Waldo picture with a perfect pass placed in such a manner that Leon could easily knock it on to Demba Ba with minimal effort. Long balls from the back find Leon Best in a manner that Leon could easily knock it on to Demba Ba with minimal effort. What's more, Demba Ba knows where Leon is going to put the ball. It is the kind of understanding that has been missing from the side through the last month. Certainly Leon will find the score sheet again, or at least we would hope. In the meantime, it makes us a little bit one-dimensional at the top, but I really think that Best/Ba at the forward positions is a better combination than Ben Arfa/Ba.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have not been the driver of the Gaby Obertan is not as bad as you think bus, but I was sitting up near the front. My patience is wearing thin. Again, this is something that I cannot quantify in the numbers or stat pictures- in fact his numbers are not at all that bad. 20/27 passes competed, 16/21 in the attacking zone, 2 chances created, 2/5 crosses. What they don't keep on track of in the stats at the four-four-two app is the times Gaby gets dispossessed. There is further no way to determine exactly how many of his incomplete passes were bad misses that just flat out killed moves. There is no way to quantify the number of times where he has gone to take on the defense when he should have crossed and vice versa. I don't know that Hatem Ben Arfa would be a better option, but I wonder if there is a time that Alan Pardew might desire to see.
Hatem Ben Arfa:
Since coming off at half v. Chelsea, Hatem Ben Arfa has seen 0 minutes. There are potential tactical explanations- v. Norwich, AP started Shola Ameob in a clear counter to what they were going to try to do. It is easy to see this as a tactical move and not as punitive or injury related. Saturday, Leon Best was restored to the starting lineup, and it is clear to see that this decision (although not returning goals) bore fruit. Seeing as how the Best/Ba partnership was firmly established as the first choice pairing during our phenomenal start to the season, you can't blame AP for restoring it. He has been named to the bench for the last two matches, so it's unlikely to be an injury thing... No real smoke here yet... but something to keep an eye on.
It's amazingly awesome how he created the chance that hit the post and the scissor-kick chance just through strength, patience and body position. The problem is, he is quite certain that he is the only player that needs to shoot the ball. It's all very well and good for me to sit here and watch Demba and say "wow, he should have dumped that off". . . but there were a couple times that I can specifically remember that he should have allowed someone to take the shot and he didn't, leading to blocked shots and ultimately dispossession. One of the instances that I can remember particularly is in the highlight video. Ba turns and has a shot blocked at the six-yard box when Yohan Cabaye is a couple of yards in front of him with, at the very least, a slightly less congested path to goal to shoot through. It's a minor thing, and it's hard to gripe that your striker wants to strike... but it may or may not have cost us 2 points on the day.
It's a little odd to be frustrated that your team did what they should have done. Swansea packed 10 men behind the ball, and we still managed to open them up several times... Colo hit the post, Ba hit the post and hit a rather spectacular scissor-kick mostly right at Michel Vorm, Shola hit a shross when being put through by Santon. But for a little bit of fortune or a touch better finishing, we could have taken 3 points from this match. On a micro level, it's hard to get too worked up about only getting the one point from this. On a macro level, I'm REALLY FRICKIN' TIRED of taking a "the sky is not falling" view of our recent form. We have taken 1 point out of 6 from two just promoted teams. For this squad, it's just not good enough.