Know Your Opponent: an Q&A with Coming Home Newcastle

Richard Heathcote

In which we have a nice chat with our friends from the SB Nation Newcastle blog

One of the things I like most about writing about football is the opportunity to talk about football with other supporters, and especially with supporters of other clubs. It's easy to forget that, while we're all knowledgable about Tottenham, there are others out there that are just as knowledgable, and passionate, and eager to discuss matters of sport, as we are.

Ahead of this Sunday's home match against Newcastle United, I caught up with Jim McMeachin, contributing writer to SBNation's excellent Toon blog, Coming Home Newcastle, to have him to answer some questions about the Magpies. And in exchange, I did the same thing for him in a post on their blog. Go check out their blog. He and managing editor Robert L. Bishop are some of the nicest guys you'll meet on the blogosphere. And it turns out not all Toon supporters are fat guys with "NUFC" tattooed on their bellies. Go figure!

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Uncle Menno: First, Newcastle supporters seem to have a, dare I say, schizophrenic relationship with Alan Pardew, starting with the controversial sacking of Chris Hughton in December of 2010. From an outsider's perspective, most seemed to be appalled about Pardew's hiring, thrilled when he took them to the cusp of Champions League qualification, ambivalent about his 8-year contract extension, and appalled again last season when the Magpies finished 16th. While the fickle nature of football fans is not in question, what's the current status of things under Pardew?

Jim McMeachin, Coming Home Newcastle: Can I just say that this is the first time I've been involved in a Q/A exchange? [Editor's note: No, I'm sorry, there isn't time...]

The difficulty with assessing Alan Pardew is trying to keep a long-term view of his performance. Although he did lead us to the 5th place finish in 2011-12, much of what happened was never going to be sustainable. In the other years (that make up the preponderance of the evidence, TBF) Pardew has frequently struggled to deploy the players at his disposal in a way that suits their playing style and skills and when he does, his tactics seem more often than not to leave the players confused anyway.

When Joe Kinnear was appointed, Pardew saw a brief sympathy boost in his popularity, but the manner in which we lost to the likes of Hull City and the makems have really pretty well worn that out. Suffice it to say that the #PardewOut brigade is growing in numbers. You can only hear "you can't expect us to compete with the likes of the Sky6" while losing to the bottom team in the league so many times.

UM: There doesn't really seem to be much difference between last year's Newcastle team that finished 16th and this year's that is firmly mid-table, apart from the Loïc Remy loan. Has he been the difference, does it have more to do (as I think) with communication and efficacy in Newcastle's midfield, or is it something else?

JM: The 2013-14 version of Newcastle United would be a much different animal without Loïc Rémy for sure. He is really the only guy scoring on a consistent basis for the club at this point - although that's pretty typical of Pardewball (Demba Ba for 10-11 and the first half of 11-12, Papiss Cissé in the second half of 11-12 and then Demba Ba again for the first half of 12-13 and then... well... nobody for the second half of 12-13. One goalscorer at a time is plenty thankyouverymuch) so I guess it has to be concluded that he has been part of the difference between last year and this. Truly we're only 4 points above 16th at this early part of the season, and performances have been so erratic that it's hard to tell exactly what we've got anyway. I think that much of any improvement is down to being healthy. As BS and cop-out an excuse as #tiredbodies was, the club did end up tops on the injury table last season. Key players were missing or playing nicked and we don't have the depth to deal with that in a normal season, let alone one featuring a European campaign.

The health (and return to form) of Cheik Tiote has been key, as has been getting Yohan Cabaye closer to his best as he must be if he values the World Cup next year (if France progress). There were reports at the end of the 12-13 season (that I roundly mocked) stating Cabaye had become a bit of a malcontent in the dressing room; it turns out that these reports may not have been very wide of the mark in light of his ninny fit prior to the closing of the transfer window this season. I mean... who could blame him, right? Because Newcastle. Anyway - efficacy. Yes, that. (Although it'd be great if a) Moussa Sissoko played a lot better on a regular basis or b) Alan Pardew would play Vurnon Anita until Sissoko can play a lot better on a regular basis.)

UM: The so-called "French Connection" where Newcastle has mined Ligue 1 for quality (and cheap) talent has paid some major dividends over the past couple of years. Hell, there are as many Frenchmen on the roster (10) as Englishmen. And to be fair, I think the gamble has paid off. How has the recent inclusion of so many "friends from across the channel" impacted the culture of the club? Do supporters care, or does quality trump citizenship?

JM: I would be lying if I said that there were not vocal sections of the fan base to whom nationality matters for whatever reason. Largely and predictably, these lot are considerably louder when results are going poorly.

I think that overall, everyone would like it if many of the clubs in the PL featured more English players, but the simple fact is that Newcastle's Academy has not exactly churned out any of the Andros Townsends of the world although there are some excellent talents at U17 level that may change that. On the wide-angle view, however, 13 of our 14 league goals have been scored by French players, so I'm not too inclined to slag them off, ya know what I mean?

UM: It could've been easy for Newcastle supporters to be ambivalent about Toon's start to the season, and then boom, you go out and thoroughly beat Chelsea at home (again). What was different about that match? Was there a tactical change, or was it just a matter of everything clicking all of a sudden?

JM: What happened against Chelsea was that Chelsea just flat didn't show up. The first half was really more of the same of what we saw in the derby match. Disinterested sloppy play and we were lucky that Chelsea were just as apathetic about the match as we were. It was largely a typical Alan Pardew "we're overmatched" performance in which we would have allowed the Blues to run right at us - it's just that they didn't want to. If you want to have success against Newcastle, just press them on the ball. That's what Hull did. That's what City do. Chelsea didn't for some reason. So, Alan Pardew deemed it safe to come out from his hidey-hole and actually play against a team who by his frequent insistence "we can't compete with". I'll get more into the idea of tactical change in the next question... but speaking in purely on-paper formation, Pardew returned to a 4-4-2 starting Shola Ameobi next to Rémy. It's hard to make much decision on the usefulness of this idea, though, because Shola didn't get a lot of time in the second half after we decided we really did want to play the match. Ultimately in addition to Good Cheik and Good Yohan, perhaps one of the most important things was the CB pairing of Mike Williamson and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa holding up to the curious long-ball tactics employed by Mourinho's side.

UM: More on tactics. Spurs have struggled this season to break down teams that park the bus, which is reflected in their dour scoring record. From what I've noticed, Pardew doesn't seem to like to set up his teams to play overly defensive. Pardew's no slouch tactically -- though he seems to favor a 4-3-3 he's not averse to shaking things up when the need arises. How do you expect Newcastle to line up tactically at White Hart Lane on Sunday? Will they take the game straight at Spurs? What do you think will be the most engaging match-ups?

JM: I would almost be tempted to feel encouraged at your recently admitted struggle against teams that park the bus as I expect that to be exactly what Alan Pardew will do. I'm assuming that we'll see much more "we're overmatched" ideas than wild hair type "let's attack" play. The problem is that we're largely not very good when we try to just pack it in defensively. If Fabricio Coloccini isn't passed fit for this weekend (he's much less likely in my mind than Cheik Tiote- both slated for 10-Nov return dates), it becomes even more dodgy. Mike Williamson has somewhat frequent spells of revolving door defending and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa has been consistently inconsistent... nothing like the assured very young club captain that we purchased last January.

You mention Pardew's use of several formations and "shaking things up when the need arises" – it is true that Alan Pardew has used a number of different formations from his safe zone 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 or a very unsuccessful 4-6 with Hatem Ben Arfa as a false 9. Don't confuse use of many formations as tactical flexibility. He's grasping - and even when a certain formation is deployed (and the expected tactics that come along with said formation) the on-field execution is bizarre. The strengths of the players in the squad suggest one formation, while the manager would be much happier if they were truly well suited to something more basic. If he could absolutely avoid playing the 4-3-3, I feel like Pardew would. Ultimately I think we'll see a somewhat unassured 4-4-2 that doesn't know if it's supposed to be attacking or parking, which is pretty typical Pardew.

So far as compelling matchups, I may have to cop out - I'm not sure if you guys will keep the formation wide and put some pressure on our full backs or if it will get very narrow (like Hull in the league) and have a go straight at our center backs. Either way you're going at a position group that has been perceived as a weakness at one point or another in recent times. Not knowing that, I think the most compelling matchup is going to be Cheik Tiote v. Holtby/Eriksen (whichever gets the start).


UM: OK, let's get you on record. State your score prediction for Sunday's match.

JM: I'll go with what I said on our podcast this week: 3-1 to Spurs. We have a storied tradition in the Pardew era of curing opponents' ills.


UM:  Finally, choose one: punch a horse in the mouth, re-hire Kevin Keegan, or change the stadium back to Sports Direct Arena. Death is not an option.

JM:  Definitely rehiring Keegan. It's the only one of the three for which the aftermath is guaranteed to last less than a year and will be entertaining as hell while it's going on.

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Thanks to Jim for what turned out to be a really fun exchange with our Newcastle bretheren!

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