The only thing that came close to nudging my backside towards the edge of my seat, watching a weary Newcastle United being outmuscled by West Ham at the weekend, was the exciting phases of play involving Hatem Ben Arfa.
He’s the kind of player we love at St James’ Park, a cheeky mix of Tino’s audacity and Beardsley’s tenaciousness. We're more likely to see him in full flight when the majority of our attacking play goes through him and I just don't see that happening with him stuck out on the right of a rigid 4-4-2 system. If anything, it unbalances our whole style of play. Allow me to present my case for starting with the 4-3-3 system – not just reverting to it when things aren't going to plan. We need to roll this out during winnable home games like West Ham at home. When introduced during the final third of last season, 4-3-3 saw us embark on a six game winning streak that took us from a bunch of unproven players hoping for a top half finish, to a team 90 minutes away from the Champions League.
One thing I like about Pardew is that he isn’t afraid to make changes during a game if things aren’t going right, whether that’s making substitutions or shuffling the pack and switching players positionally, but for some reason he seems reluctant to start with 4-3-3.
Maybe it’s a residual effect of growing up during the Keegan era but I like to see my teams get forward and attack. I’m not saying that when we head to Old Trafford on Boxing Day, we should setup with three strikers, naturally there’s a time and place to use this system, but the home game against West Ham was a classic example of an opportunity to have a proper go.
The only negative aspect from playing 4-3-3 last season was Ba’s barren spell, a consequence of him playing less centrally. This season I’d play him through the middle with Ben Arfa to his right and ether Cisse or Sammy Ameobi to the left. Ameobi junior came through the ranks playing as a striker but has been eased into the first team down the left. Playing him on the left of a front three seems a natural progression and could well turn out to be his strongest position. Cisse has had a poor start to the season, the theory “one goal is all he needs to kick start his season” hasn’t materialised. Playing him to the left of a front three might just take a bit of pressure off and put him back on track. Whatever combination, that frontline has real balance and offers genuine threat.
In the midfield I’d opt for a hardcore trio of Tiote, Cabaye and Anita. Of course width would be sacrificed and you’d have to rely on Santon and Simpson putting in extra yards but Santon has looked great going forward and, while Simpson needs more encouragement, I’ve seen enough improvement in both to suggest they can supply a decent number of crosses into danger areas playing in this formation.
We’re 11 points down on where we were last season but I’m philosophical. Newcastle United's biggest problem is the level we set the bar at by finishing 5th last year. Europa League qualification has brought with it an increase in not only the volume of games but expectation as well. The Thursday / Sunday combination clearly causes disruption and despite the heavy rotation system Pardew has introduced, gone is the attacking energy we enjoyed last season from our game. Let’s try and regain some of it this weekend at home to Swansea by setting out with some real intent.