BOLTON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 26: Hatem Ben Arfa of Newcastle United celebrates scoring the first goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Bolton Wanderers and Newcastle United at the Reebok Stadium on December 26, 2011 in Bolton, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Newcastle United took the pitch at St. James' Park today against a struggling Aston Villa squad and absolutely looked like they took the pitch with the intention to play a team propping up the table. Although taking a lead during the first half in the dubious "Possession" stat, they looked completely bereft of any motivation or ideas in the attacking third. Add to that a handful of sloppy turnovers in our own defensive third and a 1-0 halftime deficit could hardly have been viewed as a surprise.
Tactically, we have stepped back in time to the return of Ben Arfa last year when we thought it would be cute if Hatem would play a true right midfield. More than that, it seemed to be a directive that he be the primary point of attack and that the form of that attack take the shape of crosses from the Frenchman. The thing is (as we discovered last year) he is NOT a true right midfielder, and his crosses are a notch below awful.
Notable in the first half was the 37th minute withdrawal of Danny Simpson with a hamstring complaint. If you've been playing along at home, you know EXACTLY what is coming next here. Although I would love to launch a stream of expletives into this space regarding the chronic middle finger extended in the form of refusing to reinforce the defense, I will merely link these feelings and these.
It would be nearly an hour before Newcastle United showed any interest at all in the match, but when they did, Oh, how it arrived! Alan Pardew abandoned tying Hatem Ben Arfa to the RM and allowed him to go free, and it paid dividends on 59 minutes as the Ben Arfa scored yet another wonder-strike (does he score any other kind?), this one coming from the left and about 22 yards out... an absolute missile that Brad Guzan had no hope of saving at all.
While the goal seemed to free Newcastle's thinking a bit on the attacking end, nothing would solve a general lack of defensive soundness with Aston Villa repeatedly moving the ball comfortably in their offensive third and creating opportunities. But for some poor finishing from Villa, Newcastle could very well have found themselves behind again.
Alan Pardew was quoted this week as saying that he had many tactical options if Ba and Cisse were to not pick up scoring, and it looks like he tried one of them very late on with the introduction of Sylvain Marveaux (for Jonas) and Gaby Obertan (for Ba) although the match pretty well continued on as it had been from the Ben Arfa goal forward... Newcastle finally had their tails up in attack and were vulnerable at the back.
Pacey Marveaux did end up earning a free kick deep in injury time that Brad Guzan did tremendously well to save, and Newcastle were truly lucky on the day to take a point from this match.