What's going right?
Very little. Good results have been as sporadic as good performances and very rarely do the two combine in the same game.
A lot's been made of the proverbial injury crisis that's been hanging around all season, but the inevitable plus point for that is that it's given a few fringe players a chance to make a case for themselves. Youngsters like Shane Ferguson and James Tavernier have shown themselves to be more than dependable when called upon, and in Gael Bigirimana we appear to have unearthed one of the most promising central midfield players in the country. Saying someone “has it all” is the most tired of cliché’s, but in his game he already possess outstanding technical quality, impressive mental fortitude, and the sort of game-reading nous that goes way beyond his 19 years.
Oh, and Demba Ba still has two functioning knees. Although i'll be stunned if he's still using them for us by February.
How long have you got?
We can't keep our best players fit, and when we can they can't find any sort of form. We can't get the right bodies on the pitch to work with our system, then we can't find the system to work with the bodies we've got on the pitch. We've completely lost the defensive solidity which we built last year's success on, and even when we do dominate games for prolonged periods we rarely find the telling pass or flash of brilliance to make it count.
The problem largely stems from how well we did last season. There's no such thing as over achieving in a league campaign, because over 38 games you'll always get what you deserve, but our 5th place finish and Europa League qualification was accomplished with a threadbare squad a lot of other teams not paying us the respect we deserved. Now our fixture list has swelled beyond the capacity of our squad depth, and with the exception of the very top teams, our opponents set up against us with far more caution. The space we were afforded last season by sides who figured they could probably “get at” us now simply isn't there, and we've got a creaking and advisably tired bunch of players having to adapt to taking the initiative. In short, we're ill-equipped to effectively face the challenges that come off the back of a top 5 finish.
Sooner or later though, we'll either be dumped out of Europe, or the players and the system will finally start to stick a bit better. However it's psychologically impossible to keep the players in the right fettle when results are going this badly. Tempers are starting to fray, and the more mouth-breathing elements of the support are already starting to lose patience. It's not an enjoyable place to play football at the minute, and this has probably got plenty of agents rubbing their hands at the prospect of allegedly unsettled individuals making them a fortune with a move.
Got the right manager?
Thankfully, giving Alan Pardew an eight-year contract means that the endless merry-go-round of press speculation about the manager's job is a thing of the past. Even if he wasn't in such a secure position though, his success last season, coupled with this excellent working relationship with the board, means that an appalling start to the season isn't something that should even suggest he'll be unseated.
It's important to remember though, when talking about longevity of Premier League managers, is that in the season after David Moyes got Everton into the Champions League they promptly plummeted to 11th. This was always going to be a year of consolidation, and in Pardew we've got someone who both understands the clubs ethos and has proven that he can get the most of what's available to him.
The obvious answer is Demba Ba, who at times has single-handedly dragged us back into, through, and out the other side of games this season. However Davide Santon has very quietly gone about excelling himself from left-back, and is our only ever present this season. His drive, commitment, and attitude have all been outstanding, and he's probably one of the most skilled fullbacks we've ever had at the club. He's even managed to work his way out of the international wilderness and back into the full Italy squad, so it's not just me who's noticed.
Over the last few games though, Vurnon Anita's starting excel as the all-action, box-to-box midfielder that should have been the final part of the perfect midfield three with Cabaye and Tiote. However owing to the aforementioned form and fitness issued, they're yet to play together in the league.
Who would you like to sell in January?
At the moment we can't afford to sell anyone. Danny Simpson has gone from being an unspectacular but steady member of the squad, to a childish, stroppy, defensive liability, but even his departure would require 2 or 3 people coming the other way.
Who do you want to sign?
The need for defensive cover is paramount. A centre-half with pace is top of the shopping list, and it's becoming painfully obvious why Newcastle United were strongly linked with Adrian Mariappa. FC Twente's Douglas would be the perfect signing, but after not seeming too interested in a move in the summer, it's difficult to imagine him being persuaded now. Mathieu Debuchy and/or Erik Peters, of Lille and PSV respectively, would be fantastic additions to the squad. But just like Douglas before them, failed attempts to buy them in the last window mean they'll we may be better focusing our efforts elsewhere.
A midfielder who could take the creative burden away from Cabaye has to be on the list somewhere as well, making you wonder why Danny Guthrie was allowed to leave so easily in the summer. If rumour is to be believed then the powerful and talented Moussa Sissoko is already on his way, which would be a terrific piece of business.
If we do decide to strengthen at the top of the pitch, then a goal-scorer away from the Ba/Cisse mould would be nice, as would a creative type to fill in wide of both a 4-4-2 and a 4-3-3. You tend to struggle for players like that though on a tight budget, so Adam Lallana, Lucas Biglia, Charlie Austin, or even Tom Ince would all make strong additions.
Best chant so far?
We've been pretty poor on the vocal front this season, with “Don't sell Cabaye” to the tune of Achy Breaky Heart probably being the one that's caught the imagination so far. But my personal favourite has been the Club Tropicana/Bigirimana outing from the Europa League games, even though it makes little to no sense.
“Bigirimana drinks are free, Krul and Santon, there's enough for everyone.”
Best opposition team you've seen this season?
Even on our travels across the continent this season, nobody has really stood out. We've had what we expected from more or less every team we've played, which has made the results we've had that much more disappointing. If I had to choose though, I thought Swansea were fantastic when they came to St James' this season.
Biggest **** of the season?
As much as I'd love to nominate a section of the North-East's footballing press for desperately trying to create tensions and unrest to fill a pretty uneventful few months, the Manchester City fans who threw a smoke bomb into the family enclosure at the weekend take this particular award.
End of season prediction...
If sufficient acquisitions are made, fitness issues are resolved, and a level of selection and tactical consistency can be arrived at, then there's no reason that we still can't have a fairly successful season. Renewed endeavour and optimism come January would leave us only 5 or 6 points behind were we want to be with the knock-out stages of the Europa League and the FA Cup all there for the taking.
However, if issues don't resolve themselves, and heads either drop or get turned completely, then it's really anyone's guess. Remember, we're playing in a league where every team thinks they're going to finish in the top half. Head: 14th and a difficult summer of regrouping. Heart: 8th and a cup semi-final.