Watching Andy Carroll torture Newcastle two weeks ago was a dispiriting experience. Both Carroll and Kevin Nolan caused problems for their old team, while Newcastle were content to punt long balls upfield and pray someone got on the end of them.
That kind of regressive performance led to the thought that those tactics would work much better if Carroll was still at St. James’ Park.
That’s not to say that he should be brought back to Tyneside to accommodate woeful football. That won't achieve anything, but the team lacks presence in the final third, and Alan Pardew seems content to stick with a lackluster 4-4-2 formation and watch his team get beaten.
Two successive home defeats isn’t something a team with top-four aspirations can afford, so if Pardew is to live up to his words, changes need to be made. Victory against Maritimo in the Europa League will restore some confidence, but it won’t answer any questions.
Rumours persist of Demba Ba leaving the club in January, and while his loss would be devastating for the club, that isn’t the only concern right now. Ba is really the only Toon striker scoring goals in the Premier League, and the approaching transfer window leaves Pardew with some tough choices.
Does he stick with the misfiring Papiss Cisse and hope that he somehow turns it around and is able to play in the same side as Ba, or accept defeat and explore other options? If Ba leaves then the decision is made for him, but what then?
Carroll finds himself in something of a no-win situation. He hasn’t yet scored for West Ham, but even if he was consistently finding the net, it’s unlikely that Sam Allardyce would be able to put together a package that would persuade Liverpool to allow him to join them on a permanent basis.
West Ham have first refusal after the loan spell is up, but Liverpool still have to find value for money, especially given Carroll’s £35 million transfer that brought him to Merseyside.
Pardew has repeatedly stated that he would like to bring Carroll back home, although he has already played for two clubs this season, so the January move reported by The Daily Mail isn’t likely to happen. They cite the case of Gareth Farrelly, but that ruling was based on the Irish league being a separate entity to the English one, so the point is void.
Let’s assume Carroll is unavailable until the end of the season. Newcastle’s striking concerns may yet stretch until then, and since the team has never won after going behind under Pardew, the outlook is bleak.
When Carroll was sold to Liverpool, the £35 million generated was used to bring in Ba, Cisse and Yohan Cabaye, all of whom contributed in a big way as Newcastle climbed to fifth in the Premier League.
However, there’s no getting away from the fact that they overachieved last year. This has led to increased expectations from fans, something that Pardew has played up to.
This season has seen the club brought down to earth in a big way. The 4-4-2 is an outdated formation that leaves the team predictable and easily exploited, and the players aren’t doing the basics well enough.
The defence is caught out too often and the midfield lacks energy and creativity, as if the players don’t believe in the system enough to make a complete effort. The 4-3-3 of last season was a great success, but Pardew seems more concerned with defensive midfielders than attacking flair.
Carroll hasn’t scored for West Ham, but his presence on the field has added up to more than that. He’s a consistent worker who does a good job of deceiving with his movement, as well as holding the ball up well and using his aerial presence to provide for others.
Newcastle’s failed experiment to partner Cisse with Ba illustrates what they lost when Carroll departed, and although Shola Ameobi offers a comparable threat, he doesn’t have the pace and touch of Carroll.
Newcastle play Southampton, Stoke and Wigan over the next few weeks. When combined with the previous two games against West Ham and Swansea, the run-up to Christmas should have been the start of a revival.
Instead, the team and manager look to be out of options already.
Newcastle have the talent to live up to Pardew’s expectations, but the manager has to see beyond his comfort level and make decisions for the good of the club, not the players. Ba was unhappy on the left in a 4-3-3 last season, but the team got results because of it. Maybe it should be brought back, regardless of his feelings.
Hatem Ben Arfa is a fantastic player who can change a game, but doesn’t always track back and cover after making a run. Freeing him of that responsibility could work wonders.
Continuously hitting free kicks up to Mike Williamson isn’t going to work, either, and must be abandoned. It’s true that Cheick Tiote and Cabaye have both struggled to control the midfield, but conceding possession via free kicks by gambling on Williamson isn’t the answer.
The club’s involvement in the January transfer window will determine their success in the New Year. Buying more players is an answer too frequently relied upon, however, and owner Mike Ashley has been reticent to gamble his money and risk overpaying.
Carroll is a proven Newcastle goal scorer who fits in Pardew’s system, be it 4-4-2 or 4-3-3. The team would benefit from his work ethic and unselfishness, as well as his goals. There is no gamble involved.
The Daily Mail hints that Carroll’s services would cost £17 million in the summer, and have already linked Tottenham as a potential destination. Carroll is a Geordie, however, and the chance of returning to his home city will understandably appeal.
It’s not often that a club can sell a young player for £35 million and then buy him back for half of that two years later. This sort of profit has to appeal to Ashley, especially given the injection of cash from the much-maligned Wonga deal.
Newcastle’s focus should be on staying in contention, not staying up. The reacquisition of Carroll in the summer—along with a tactical reshuffle in the New Year—gives them the best chance to do that.