The one definitive observation from Saturday’s draw at St James Park was the one we always discuss in the aftermath of another ninety or so minutes of frustration. You know exactly what it is I’m referring to. Regardless of all the tippy tappy possession and the undoubted Barcelona brilliance of Modric (just call it Lukalona football) who you just have to stand back and applaud when remembering the slow but necessary process of his gradual but now explosive return to complete form.
Even if his performance at Newcastle was not full pelt thanks to the physicality of the opposition, pushed and barged throughout the game, but refusing to be bullied and was desperately unlucky what with the woodwork rudely getting in the way from a shot that deserved net.
So regardless of all that...we still don’t quite manage to make it count up top, we don't seem to create the clear cut chances that the build up play deserves, mainly because when the ball gets up top in and around the box, we are let down by either lack of composure, wrong decisions or poor ball/cross. So that vital bit of the build up is where it sort of falls flat.
Plenty of guilty touches shared by many. Lennon, on the left (having started off in his traditional right) got his foot stuck under the ball once or twice when a cross might have resulted in a goal. On the left, crossing with his weaker foot. Not going to work really.
There was a patch in the second half where we knocked on their door constantly. Well actually, we were practically kicking the door down even though we had the keys in our hand, however dropping said keys walking away from the door back towards the start of the driveway before running back and kicking the door...again. Never really breaking through it. There was an easier way.
PICK UP THE KEYS, PUT THE KEYS IN THE LOCK, UNLOCK THE DOOR. WALK IN.
Lennon did do quite well trying to get in via the window (that’s cutting in onto his strong(er) right foot and what with him being so small, perfect fit for it). Along with Modric, Azza was our best player on the day. Even with his final ball hiccups. His goal was deserved. For his effort and for our effort with not giving up. Even though we might look back in regret at some fundamental issues that aided Newcastle into the lead and for most of the game likely to hang on to it. I under-rated them post-match. Shame on me.
As for us - we made hard hard work of grabbing a point.
Their goal, awful really from our perspective. Hutton’s slow and slower footwork the first facepalming moment, Cudicini’s attempted save the second. The latter redeemed himself. The former is fortunate he’s decent going forward. His positioning remains awkward at the back, along with his lack of instinctive quick thinking defending with additional ball and player watching. Can we try Charlie again at RB again? Or Kaboul?
Before this, should have been 1 up at half time (JD miss) but 1-0 down in the second it was, and the day continued to run with the ominous theme of despair. What with BAE out injured, Bale in at LB from LW and then out early in the game with a back injury. And then 1-0 down and lacking punch.
Dawson, talismanic on his return bringing with him some clean sheets to replace the dirty old ones found himself hiding under the blankets avoiding the big scary hairy monsters. He got turned, badly on one occasion. I still love the big smiling lad to bits but a day to forget for the most part. Could have easily been 2-0 once or twice when we pushed forward only to be countered.
Jenas was like a goldfish swimming in shark infested waters. Talks a good talk does JJ. Talks. Pienaar didn’t look sharp or completely 100%. Did have one or two worthy moments of intent, but he’s come straight into the side so we can hardly start having a go. He did okay, we’ll expect better over time if he’s going to be more than just a squad player (which is what I think he is). Bassong did fine considering it’s the first time he’s slotted into LB this season.
Other mentions. Defoe should have had it just before the half time whistle, as mentioned. Buzzed about but his decision making sometimes has me eating my fist. I dislike the way he always seems to fall down after a poor first touch in front of the pen area. I know it was physical game, but it happens too often. van der Vaart? You sort of forgot he was playing at times, what with dropping back in deepest midfield to help out Luka and sort of getting stuck there. And please Rafa, stop allowing gravity to pull you down with such comparative ease.
Also found a lot of our play was down the middle, forever smacking into a cluster of Newcastle players. Lost the balance of width and as the game progressed (three at the back) we still seemed to get to their pen area and lose impact due to a loose ball or whatever. Ref was as messy as our final third effort.
When you cry out for Crouch (which is what five of us were doing as we watched the game on a plasma – the wonders of streaming from lap top to tv) you just knew the day was now totally engulfed in ominous-ness. When he came on we hardly managed to us his tallnessness. Lack of width, lack of crosses. But he did get his head onto a flick-on once or twice which is either deemed as constructive to bringing his team mates into the game or the only thing he does which is hardly reason to depend on him.
In the end, Lennon worked his swagger and from the jaws of defeat yadda yadda yadda. He made the right decision and finished splendidly. Two points dropped, no? Well actually probably not. Because that observation from the game once more illustrates that if you have no consistency up top you’re not going to produce consistent performances. This is not an issue with the 4411 formation. Well it is, I guess, because we’ve not got the player to compliment vdV and especially the magic of Modric. But I prefer this step up to a more traditional 442 as with the right players it will work better than say having JD and Crouch starting. Will being the operative word.
Our midfield has remained more or less the same and when Huddlestone returns we’ll be even stronger in terms of creativity. Pinged balls and disguised passes aplenty from Tommy.
But the forward conundrum continues to plod along.
Recent games, recent partnerships:
vs. Newcastle - Defoe/VDV
vs. Man Utd - Crouch/VDV
vs. Fulham - Pavlyuchenko/VDV
vs. Newcastle - Pavlyuchenko/VDV
vs. Aston Villa - Defoe/VDV
vs. Chelsea - Defoe/Pavlyuchenko
vs. Birmingham - Defoe/Crouch
(thanks to Mumorn, GG)
And the stats:
Crouch - 1 goal in 1315 minutes, or 1 goal per 14.6 games
Defoe - 0 goals in 548 minutes
Keane - 0 goals in 226 minutes
Pav - 5 goals in 801 minutes, or 1 goal per 1.8 games.
Our strikers - 6 goals in 2890 minutes, or one goal per 5.4 games.
6 goals in 23 Premier League games
Our Midfield - 21 goals in 9580 minutes, or 1 goal per 5 games.
21 goals in 23 Premier League games
(thanks to...not sure, if stats are not correct – let me know)
Now, take the team as is and stick a prime time Dorgba-esque player up top. Much like the Dutchman and Croatian galvanise our midfield, so will a top drawer centre-forward.
We don’t test the opposition keeper enough, when we do we don’t score enough from chances created. It’s almost there, the design, the workings. I know we struggled with the final ball but it’s all limp where it matters. None of the penetration deserving of some of our football.
Was a time when we were scoring goals for fun (circa Berba/Keane era). This team just needs that spark. Because the moment we click and we're clinical and ruthless, we’ll be dangerous. We’ll kill teams off and we would win games that ‘Top 3’ teams are expected to kill off. The reason we are once more thinking more about the 'battle for fourth' is because we are probably sort of better than last season but not massively improved to compete with the other sides who are churning out the results.
Don’t fret at the Prem table. We got completely written off last season, countless times. We’ll still finish fourth. But it will go down to the final week(s) again.
Also, I have a question about our scouting system. I've discussed this a few times already this past weekend with Lilywhite supporting family and friends and it's something a number of you have probably scratched your heads about plenty of times. Why do we let it drag out, re: signing players? Is there no smart decent striker somewhere in world football we could pick up for a relatively good price or are we are about to enter the usual last gasp bid and win transfer bingo of deadline day? Do we not have people working on potential transfers in the months leading up to the opening of the window so we can just make bid on the first day - 100% it's the player we believe will better us?
Behind the scenes, we might well have two or three players that fit the bill. But you can't quite believe that's the case. Hope I'm wrong.