NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 05: Newcastle striker Papiss Cisse (r) listens to tea mate Demba Ba on his debut during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Aston Villa at Sports Direct Arena on February 5, 2012 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Newcastle, like many Premier League teams, is rumored to be scouting or negotiating with many different players from around the world. At any given time, it seems, the club is connected to upwards of 50 different targets. Most of these rumors will turn into nothing or simply never were anything - it is called the Silly Season for a reason, after all. The ironic truth is that even with all of the information that we as fans have at our fingertips, more and more actual transactions happen without anyone having prior knowledge to them. For every Papiss Cisse, who was connected to the Toon for well over a year, there is a Mehdi Abeid, who was on nobody's radar except that of Alan Pardew and Graham Carr.
I make note of this not because it is a new revelation - most football fans are savvy enough to understand that if you're going to immerse yourself in transfer rumors, you've got to add some sodium to your diet. No, I point this out because I think the consensus on Newcastle's targets is a little one-sided. You see, regardless of the actual players mentioned, one can glance at the body of news items on a certain team and ascertain exactly what it is they're in the market for. Let's use an example that's not so close to home: FC Porto, having reportedly just lost Hulk to Chelsea, will without question be looking for a center forward to replace him. It follows, then, that the majority of transfer rumors published in newspapers and around the internet will concern strikers the world over. There will be the occasional midfielder, and they may even purchase one or two defenders, but click on a random Porto article, and odds are they will be discussing Hulk replacements.
The same is true for Newcastle, of course. We keep a master list of NUFC transfer rumors behind the scenes. It's woefully incomplete, but I like to think that we catch most of the things that are said about Newcastle by credible sources. It struck me as I looked at that list yesterday that most - and we're talking a large majority - of the players mentioned are defenders. It makes sense - Steven Taylor's early-season injury in 2011-12 required a lot of shuffling, and Mike Williamson simply didn't provide the quality that we had all hoped for from him. The fullbacks are kind of a mess, especially since Danny Simpson has one foot out the door. A right back would be nice, but wouldn't it also be great if a left back came in and allowed Davide Santon to work on his natural side of the pitch? Hence a giant stack of rumors about players that can play anywhere on the back line.
There are strikers connected with Newcastle, sure, but almost every one of them is mentioned as a possible Demba Ba replacement - in other words, the move would only be necessitated if one of the current starters were to leave. Apparently, Newcastle are just fine up front. Notice that I am not arguing that this is the position of Pardew, et al. As I mentioned above, surprises happen. It does appear based on the volume of rumors that the majority of observers do not see a center forward as a position of great need for this club as currently constructed. Certainly many supporters feel that Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse are the answers at center forward, and if the club can just hold on to both of them, there is no need for any outside help.
I disagree with this assessment. It is my opinion that the Magpies must bring in at least one quality striker, even if Ba stays (Like Kevin Garnett, anything is possible). The first and most obvious reason is depth. Shola Ameobi and Leon Best (also rumored to leave) are capable substitutes and fill-ins for early round cup matches, but both Ba and Cisse will be involved in the Olympics and the Africa Cup of Nations, and then there's the Europa League. By the way, if Best does take off, Xisco is the fourth man. Xisco. As unfortunate as it is to think about, considerations must also be made for possible injuries, and though Ba has been durable while donning the black and white, to label him an injury risk might even be a bit generous.
The other, perhaps more important, reason is that we simply can't expect a repeat performance from these two players. Shuddertothink of SBN's Manchester City blog, Bitter and Blue, has been dabbling in statistical analysis and has recently posted a couple of FanPosts over here that have been well-received. In one of those, a statistical preview of Newcastle's penultimate match against City, he made the point that Papiss Cisse had been scoring at an unsustainable rate. A full 65 percent of his shots on goal were going in. You don't even have to know what the exact baseline is to know that that is a ridiculous stat. As it happens, the top 20 scorers in the Premier League score approximately 40% of their SoT on average. Cisse is certainly a special talent. Let's not take anything away from what he accomplished. However, there are world-class strikers who dream of sustaining a 0.65 goal to shot on target ratio. If you're having trouble with the stat, think of it in
simpler more traditional terms: He's simply not going to continue scoring 13 goals for every 14 games that he plays. Agreed?
Of course, Cisse's incredible run happened to coincide with a scoring drought for Ba. Ba carried the load before Cisse arrived, and then Papiss picked up where he left off. A happy coincidence. A full year of both guys, who have undeniable chemistry with each other, and maybe they spread the goals out between them. It's not inconceivable, and it's a sentiment we've expressed here before. As a counterpoint, consider the following graph (thanks again to shuddertothink):
That's right. Newcastle were below average in the shots per game department, and this is at home, where the Toon made their hay. The away graph is a little more depressing.
A quick, crude summary of 2011-12: Newcastle finished 5th, well above what anybody expected, because they kept the ball out of their own net (except for a few notable blowouts) and scored just enough to win. Remember, this isn't about dismantling last season's success or making statements about whether or not they "deserved" their position. It's about looking at whether or not the performance is repeatable. Honestly, they must either: (A) generate more shots (and shots on goal, obviously), or (B) continue to convert those shots on goal at what we might call an unreasonably high rate. Shot generation doesn't just come from forwards. They need to have the ball at their feet in order to shoot. Improvement must come from all areas. However, Pardew must be given the freedom to implement a more offensive game plan if the situation calls for it.
So let's say Newcastle hold onto Ba and decide to add another high-caliber attacker. How does one go about attracting such a player? Hatem Ben Arfa plays up front with the strikers or right behind them (and was not discussed here because of his role in the formation). If HBA goes back to midfield, it's either a two striker formation or one of the important midfielders is left out. Basically, Pardew is left to recruit a proven striker, likely currently attached to a club that has qualified for the Champions League or hopes to do so, to spend a significant amount of time on the bench. It's definitely a hard sell, and my hope is that this is the reason the papers characterize every forward connected with the club as a potential Demba Ba replacement. Ideally, the front office is recruiting these players with an eye toward adding them as complementary pieces, rather than viewing them as Plan B.