By Nicholas Kituno
When you look at St. Jamesâ€™ Park from afar, Iâ€™d assume, it looks like the house sitting atop of a hill in Transylvania. A big, fortress-like kingdom that casts as a shadow across everything below it, thunderous noise bellowing out and into the enclosed smaller towns and areas of the city, the vibration of jumping and chanting rocking the entire city from the Milburn Stand. St. Jamesâ€™ Park is by far one of the most intimidating places to go in the Premier League, and quite possibly out of English football. You have your Old Traffords, Stamford Bridges, Anfields (etc) but there is nothing like going all the way up North into Newcastle, borderline Scotland, to feel out of place and nowhere near your home or where you live. A sea of black and white-striped shirts fill the entire embankment and Leazes Stand, whilst a small section of red/blue/whatever-other-coloured shirts sit at the very top, the very far corner of the stadium â€“ out of reach, out of sight and out of earshot.
Thatâ€™s why I always dread it when Manchester United play away to Newcastle United. Even home games are a struggle. Often I have tended to underestimate the strength of the Toon and their capabilities of toppling the big guns, but that is probably due to the case of their downfall in the past year or two, only just starting to begin their uprising. Not long ago, they found themselves in the second-flight, a huge shock that meant the Premier League would temporarily be without one of itâ€™s most daunting clubs around. Perhaps it was a bonus for the bigger clubs, but there was not to be the huge 52,000 all-seater playing host to the likes of United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, but rather Nottingham Forest, Reading and Middlesbrough. The end of the 2008-09 season would be one of the lowest points in Newcastleâ€™s recent history.
But now they step into a new realm and gain the fresh and bursting breathe of the confidence that was very much lacking â€“ sometimes painfully obvious within the performances. Now, they sit fourth in the Premier League behind Chelsea, Manchester United and City, with Stoke making that long trip up north to try and topple the Toonâ€™s unbeaten streak on Monday. The 1-0 win at home was courtesy to fan favourite Yohan Cabayeâ€™s belter last weekend attained them more points to keep up with the chasing pack and signify that they are not just a struggling mid-table side that once dominated the top-flight and gave many a club something to worry about.
Cabayeâ€™s Â£4.3million move to Tyneside in the summer has paid large dividends in the clubâ€™s midfield talent, and with the sale of Joey Barton in a move way down south to Loftus Road and the mighty Queens Park Rangers, the Frenchman sits alongside central battler Cheick Tiote as they try to marshal the centre of the park with teamwork, hard-working ball retention and good distribution. The pair have played in all 9 of the clubâ€™s league games but will have to do without their Ivorian central midfielder as he still battles with a knee injury, which may see him out of the home game against the Potters next week.
But since then the two have provided a great service to the side since, with them having the second and third highest passing success ratios in the midfield, with Jonas Gutierrez leading by a percent ahead of Tiote, according to WhoScored.com. That, and averaging the most tackles per game, has proven to be a winning combo for Pardew. Take an example from their last game in the league against Wigan Athletic:
Lilleâ€™s former playmaker Cabaye was able to complete 76% of his passes, with 12 successful. Although it is not an outstanding statistic on his part, he made up for it with a tackle, two clearances and a goal â€“ which I am sure Newcastle fans will have wanted more than just a high passing percentage.
His partner, Tiote, achieved an 84.7% passing success on the other hand, 8% higher, and was far more industrious â€“ three interceptions, 42% tackling success percentage and winning three free-kicks seems that the co-operative pair worked well for that game. It makes sense to have them both in the midfield together in a two-man, to then allow someone like Cabaye, a catalyst, to be able to string passes together without many interruptions, and the aggressive, tough-tackling Ivorian in the way of anyone who even merely attempts to. This three yellow cards so far this season being a small indication.
Which it also makes sense to see that most of the action is concentrated towards the middle, 47% of it at home and 39% of it away, despite playing generally to the wings than to the centre. Newcastle have seen the majority of the battles inside the away sideâ€™s half at St. Jamesâ€™ Park, whilst trying to take the game to their own hosts when away from Tyneside. At home, 67% of the Toonâ€™s shots have come from the centre of the park, and a tenuous 7% from the right-hand side. The attempting of shots has also come with a high percentage, with 51% of shots attempted coming from outside of the 18 yard box.
With all of these statistics, one would now think that Pardewâ€™s attempts to create a more attacking Newcastle are coming into fruition. A meagre six goals conceded in all of their Premier League games whilst finding the net 12 times (thanks to Demba Ba and Leon Best) has allowed their freedom of confidence and belief to then be transferred onto the pitch where it belongs. Temporary or long-standing, Pardew and co. are looking good.
But putting that aside, there are a few things that could perhaps be worked upon before moving into the next gear; for example the amount of shots per game. Newcastle average the third-lowest amount of Shots per Game at home in the league, with their opponents for Monday â€“ Stoke City â€“ having the lowest with 10.Â Many teams like to make their ground a tough place to go to, whether that be in local derbies where their rivals from across-town only have a drive a short trip or a team from all the way up North/down South have a tiring journey ahead of them. St. Jamesâ€™ Park falls into the latter in most cases, with Sunderland having not won at their rivalsâ€™ ground for a decade (Julio Arca goal in the 67th minute, followed by a late one by Danny Dicho in the 87th).
Itâ€™s also another slightly worrying statistic to see that 69% of the shots that they concede at home come from the middle of the park and 46% in the 18 yard box, whilst 49% staying out. Reverting back to the Newcastle United vs. Wigan Athletic game, 57% of Wiganâ€™s shots came from outside of the box, 42% out. Perhaps the loss of Tiote for the next game, with his abilities to retain the ball quite successful, will hurt Newcastle? Given the aggression and no-nonsense nature of Pulisâ€™ side, could they prove too much for Newcastle? In spite of averaging the second-lowest shots per game count away from home in the league, again with 10 and Aston Villa sitting bottom with a small 9.
And lastly, Newcastle so far this season have, at home, conceded 53% of shots from the opposition inside the 18 yard box. The third-highest in the league with the crown belonging to bottom-of-the-table Blackburn Rovers and West Bromwich Albion in second place â€“ 56% and 53% respectively. Outside of the box, it totals up to 40% and 7% of them inside the 6 yard box, seventh highest in the league. Worryingly enough for me Manchester United sit higher up that list in 5th with a percentage more. Frantic.
But these are all just numbers and percentages right? I mean, when it comes down to the actual day (night when talking in considerations for the game on Monday), and the groundâ€™s rocking, itâ€™s whoever plays up to that pressure and adjusts it right that will turn the game around, be that game-changer. These statistics are all accumulated from past performances and events â€“ they can forecast what can happen in the future, but not in the sense that it can fully determine the result. Itâ€™s not like Player Aâ€™s 67% of attempted crosses meet their intended targets automatically means that there is 100% guarantee that itâ€™ll result in a goal on that day? There is likelihood, but not a certainty.
Never minding that, managers and coaches look at these things to see where they need to change and where they need to improve. Of course, if you look at Manchester City for example, 2% of the shots that they have conceded have come from inside the 6 yard box. Shows how strong and sturdy their defence is. The same goes for Stoke away from home. Liverpool have never conceded a shot from inside the 6 yard box this season. They instigate what needs to be said and addressed on the day, and surely Pardew will be the man to do that â€“ obviously.
Pardewâ€™s leadership of the team has impressed me for one. Many a people doubted his abilities to make something out of the big club all the way in Newcastle and Mike Ashleyâ€™s appointment of the ex-Charlton boss are â€œinsaneâ€. Hughtonâ€™s dismissal from the club in December last year caused a mass uproar from the league nationwide and could be heard at the very bottom of the npower Championship. Now, they see themselves slowly polishing a mid-to-top-half finish at the end of the season. Some may say that Pardew is still not the man to lead the club to pastures new, and in that sense I mean the UEFA Europa League or the UEFA Champions League. They are probably right. Looking at the Wimbledon-born former Palace midfielderâ€™s credentials, he has stayed as a domestic manager rather than one which can deal with the pressures of European football and clubs abroad who have perhaps had far more experience than him in the same situation. Not to mention the club having been in Europe before a decade back, awaiting their return.
Pardew may just be a stepping stone. His leadership skills only go so far for someone who led West Ham United back into the big time but found himself back where he was not long before with a club only 20 mins a drive away â€“ funnily enough.
If, or when, Newcastle obtain a top half finish and improve on last yearâ€™s of 12th then someone may come in and take them further. Who that is, I nor do many, have a clue. Pardew will find another club and probably take them where they want to be and who knows, perhaps he will find them European football. But for now the club heâ€™s at only seems like it can go so far with him and Iâ€™d have to agree with those who share the same view. If not similar.
For now, it is a kingdom with a ruler but not a strong iron-fisted ruler. A temporary leader that has given them prosperity and belief something that was amiss a year or so ago. The kingdom needs someone that can bring both a winning mentality and discipline, a captain that will help motivate when things have turned to dust and the one special player that can make it all possible â€“ Cabaye anyone?