Thursday, November 28, 2013

Form and formation

It may be tempting fate, but I thought it might be worth taking a moment to reflect on the upsurge in our fortunes since the nadir of our season so far, that defeat down at the Dark Place. A hat-trick of Premier League victories is never to be sniffed at, especially not when those fixtures include the visit of Chelsea and a trip to White Hart Lane. So, what's behind the transformation in our fortunes? As the title of this post would suggest, I think it essentially comes down to form and formation.

One of the most alarming things about the last campaign was the way that players who had performed brilliantly during our unanticipated but ultimately unsuccessful push for Champions League qualification in 2011/2 suddenly lost all semblance of form, all at the same time. Tim Krul wasn't the worst case, but he could have had a better season all the same. Now, though, he's back to his best - as that staggering display in repelling Spurs amply indicated. Mathieu Debuchy may have been suspended against Norwich, but he's at last starting to show why we paid £6m for his services and why he's a fixture in the French national side. More notable is the current form of Mr T and Dreamboat, both shadows of their former selves last season but now once again near the high levels they set upon arrival at the club.

Last term, such was the extent of the issue that the Silver Fox had no option but to continue picking out-of-sorts players. This time around, however, he's been able to drop Papiss Cisse to the bench for the benefit of the side as a whole. What's more, we've also found that when replacements have been called upon, they've stepped into the breach admirably. Few of us would have thought the much maligned MYM and Mike Williamson would be in the side on merit, but they genuinely are at present.

And then there's the formation. While the 4-3-3 line-up held the promise of an attacking style, too often it wasn't working, the three-man midfield overrun and Dreamboat forced into a more defensive and less creative role than we'd like. Cisse wasn't leading the line well enough, and a couple of experiments with HBA in the so-called false nine role didn't work offensively either. The switch to 4-4-2, with Loic Remy playing in a mobile role off Big Lad, has given us greater solidity, Mr T firmly anchoring the midfield so Dreamboat can concentrate on doing what he does best, namely picking passes.

Admittedly, we don't have the width in midfield that a 4-4-2 formation would reply - we're sometimes a bit narrow, with no natural wingers. Obertan Kenobi has rarely looked up to that job, and it's doubtful that Spidermag would step back into the role he served when he first arrived on Tyneside, so perhaps the mooted loan move for Man Utd's Wilfried Zaha would indeed be the answer.

As it stands, though, we're not suffering too much - certainly Goofy's workrate on the flank (and his habit of popping up with timely goals) is much appreciated. HBA, frustratedly kicking his heels on the bench having declared his desire to win the Ballon d'Or, is undoubtedly a more talented player, but he can also be a bit of a luxury, peripheral to the action in the same way that Cisse has been all too often this season.

I'll finish by identifying three areas for improvement. First, I think we could be expecting more from Moussa Sissoko, though in his defence he's being asked to play in a slightly unfamiliar role to allow Mr T and Dreamboat to operate centrally. Second, the over-reliance on Remy is of increasing concern, with still no guarantee we'll be able to sign him permanently in January. He registered in all three victories, and with each goal his value nudges a bit higher and his list of suitors gets a bit longer. Goofy has done reasonably well in this regard, but we need other players to contribute too. Third, and relatedly, our full backs could give us a bit more going forwards, particularly in terms of delivery into the box. That our revival has taken place with Big Lad back in the starting XI is no coincidence - he's been doing an excellent job up front, especially against Norwich - but he needs to add goals, and to do that he'll be counting on better service from wide areas.

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