Is Newcastle's psychedelically surreal start all that it is cracked up to be? Or have we been tripping?
Arch-hippy Timothy Leary's jingle for hallucinogenic drugs, "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out", may seem out of place when talking about Alan Pardew's Newcastle United. Although looking at their league position at this stage of the season, you could be forgiven for thinking that someone had slipped some LSD into your morning cuppa. Sitting above the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal in fourth place, the Toon certainly appear to have turned on the style at the start of their season. However, last weekend's defeat to Manchester City brought them crashing back to reality, and Thierry Ennui believes that this particular come-down might be long and painful.
"Turn On" - The Season Begins
To be honest, part of the hype surrounding this season's Newcastle squad was that not much was expected of them. Andy Carroll was shown the door in January when an increasingly daft-looking £35 million was offered for his services down Anfield way. José Enrique, held by many to be one of the Toon's players of 2010-11, followed in August. On top of these losses, club captain Kevin Nolan was allowed to drop into West Ham's promotion battle, despite bagging an impressive 12 goals from Newcastle's midfield. Last but not least, outspoken Twitter sensation Joey Barton was allowed to follow Nolan to London, joining QPR for free. Thierry Ennui says "not least" because the sadly-departed Scheidtcast suggested that Barton was responsible for Carroll and Nolan's inspiring seasons, and TE tends to agree. That was the "Outs".
The "Ins" comprised of a decidedly Gallic influx: Manchester United's winger Gabriel Obertan signed on, along with countrymen Yohan Cabaye, Sylvain Marveaux and Mehdi Abeid. With the exception of Cabaye, who was instrumental in Lille winning their first Ligue 1 title in 57 years this summer, this scattering of former France Under-21 midfielders were a relatively unknown quantity, apart from Obertan who had effectively flopped at Old Trafford. The same "unproven" label could be attached to Italian defender Davide Santon, hailed as a "young Paolo Maldini" but still with much to prove at just 20. The arrival of Demba Ba from West Ham provided the striker that the Toon Army so badly craved, Post-Carroll.
However Tony Pulis' ominous assessment of Ba's fitness, reported as a "ticking time bomb", together with his tendency to wastefully snatch at half chances while West Ham desperately attempted to avoid going down, were hardly the stuff of dreams for Newcastle fans. There was positive news in the highly-anticipated returns of Dan Gosling and Hatem Ben-Arfa, who both missed most of last season through injury, and the retention of local hero (and Maradona's man-crush) Jonás Gutiérrez. However few could have foretold the eleven match unbeaten run that this combination of players would achieve. Or could they?
"Toon In" - The Unbeaten Run
This is where Thierry Ennui gets really critical: Newcastle have had a remarkably fortunate start to the season, as good as they were likely to get. What objectively reads as "P 12, W 7, D 4, L 1" does not look quite so impressive when you examine the fixtures closely.
- Newcastle 0-0 Arsenal - Home advantage fails to get result against troubled 10-man Arsenal "who left Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri out of their squad" due to imminent exits.
- Sunderland 0-1 Newcastle - Upper hand in North-East derby maintained in edgy encounter. Off-colour Sunderland will go without a win for another three matches.
- Newcastle 2-1 Fulham - Another edgy win against a "tired looking" Fulham who were defeated in distant Ukraine just 53 hours previously. Fulham have only scored 3 goals in 6 away matches.
- QPR 0-0 Newcastle - QPR "held to goalless draw" by Newcastle. Pardew: "we did not deserve any more".
- Aston Villa 1-1 Newcastle - Newcastle "take control" at Villa Park, but only emerge with a point.
- Newcastle 3-1 Blackburn - Ba hat-trick inspires win over stricken Blackburn team who have one win & one draw from 6, and haven't won since.
- Wolves 1-2 Newcastle - Newcastle are swamped by a Wolves side who are five games without a win, but emerge victorious against the run of play. Wolves are denied a valid goal and have a strong penalty claim rejected.
- Newcastle 2-2 Tottenham - the pick of the bunch: a home draw against an in-form Spurs side, following a two-week international break. Newcastle have fewer regular internationalists than Tottenham.
- Newcastle 1-0 Wigan - Newcastle edge out a Wigan side who have no wins in previous five matches.
- Stoke 1-3 Newcastle - Newcastle defeat a Stoke side who have failed to win any game following a mid-week match since August 28th, having lost 4 of the previous 5 such games over 2 months. It is Stoke's 5th game in 16 days, while Newcastle have played 5 in 30 days.
- Newcastle 2-1 Everton - Goal-shy Everton lose their sixth match in seven despite having the better of the play. Also have valid penalty claim turned down.
- Man City 3-1 Newcastle - The first league defeat. Newcastle's bubble bursts?
Arguably what we have is a team who stumbled into an unbeaten run, playing opponents who were off-form or suffering from fixture congestion. With the exception of the home draw against Tottenham, most of Newcastle's opponents were off-form or struggling to find goals. Until yesterday, the only top-half teams that they had faced away were Aston Villa, who have won only half of their home games, and QPR, who have won just once at Loftus Road. Both games ended with a share of points. The fact of the matter is that Newcastle's start to the season has been as easy as any team has had it, and now we shall see what the squad is made of in the coming weeks.
"Drop Out"? - Sterner Tests for the Toon
So is Newcastle's luck about to change? Following Manchester City's 3-1 victory over the Toon, BBC's Alistair Magowan Tweeted that "Pardew says he was frustrated by missed chances and that nothing went his team's way". Well, as the golfing aphorism goes, "the harder you work, the luckier you get". A team like City will punish your errors, and give away less chances, than an Everton side who has Arsenal's Mikel Arteta among their top-scorers, or a Wolves side who have now gone nine games without a clean sheet. The fickle element that we call luck tends to be related to self-belief and ability, and Newcastle are about to be tested in both departments.
It is one thing to take chances against slack defences, and hold out against teams that are starved of goals, especially when confidence is high. It is another entirely to face some of the best players the league has to offer when you've just been papped off of the most expensive team in the country. Alan Pardew himself admitted that "City are best team we've played by some distance", but the truth content of that statement may be higher than he realises. Simply put, Newcastle have marched through the first third of the season with barely any top-quality tests. Following on from their first defeat, they face Manchester United at Old Trafford, and then host Chelsea. They must also visit a sturdy-looking Norwich side, and also a Liverpool side undefeated at Anfield before the year is out, before welcoming Man United to the SportsDirect Arena as first-footers. Alan Pardew may be in for a chilly winter.
On top of all this there is a mounting injury list, and while NUFC Blog has convincingly argued that Ba's knee problem is not as serious as Pulis suggested, they also draw attention to Marveaux's worrying history of hamstring and groin injuries. The Newcastle faithful have rich experience of these issues, from such luxury tampons* as Michael Owen and Kieron Dyer. Digression aside, the season is about to reach the point where smaller squads struggle to maintain form and fitness. Consider Hull's early run and then plummet to relegation two seasons ago, or Blackpool's boom-and-bust form last year. If there are any more casualties on treatment table in the near future, Newcastle's squad may start to look a little threadbare. (*tampon: injury-prone player, on account of being "in for one week, then out for three".) This is not to say that Newcastle are relegation candidates - Wigan, Blackburn and Bolton are looking, well, "Bolt-ed On" as things stand.
Then again, Bolton endured a comparatively hellish start compared to Newcastle, facing both the Manchester clubs, Chelsea, Liverpool and a resurgent Arsenal within six games. The pummelling that their confidence and results took should serve as a warning to Newcastle: unless they bounce back from last week's defeat with a good result against Manchester United, their season may well take something of a nosedive. The inherent rivalry games against the Red Devils might inspire a decent performance, then again the midweek draw against Benfica and subsequent "hairdryer treatment" may have the Old Trafford side riled up. In the near future, St.James' Park may quickly cool off from the Summer of Love it has enjoyed so far. The concern for the Toon Army must be that the season doesn't end in "Fear and Loathing"...