Tuesday, November 16, 2004

The honeymoon's over

Without wanting to be alarmist and to whip up any ideas of there being a "crisis" at St James's Park - after all, we supposedly had one at the beginning of the season, and that was overcome easily enough - the last week has brought home our frailities and problems once more.

In the space of seven days, a kind of miniature annus horribilis, we've lost no fewer than three home games. Any defeat is disappointing, but home defeats, especially for a club that prides itself (with some justification) on its fortress-like lair, feel like some kind of violation - beaten up in our own home and burgled of the three points, or, in the case of the Chelsea match, the opportunity to progress in a cup competition.

To look at these games in a positive light for a moment, in Chelsea and Man Utd the calibre of the opposition was such that any mistakes would be and indeed were punished, and the Fulham result was freakish beyond belief. We played at very least reasonably well in all three games, and failed to get our just desserts in the way that we did with the awful showing at Bolton, culminating in Souness's first defeat as manager.

However, the brutal facts of the matter are that Souness has now presided over four defeats in the last five outings - three league defeats in a row and the only win coming against powderpuff opposition we should have destroyed by a far greater margin. Questions are beginning to be asked of his selection policy, and he needs to come up with some answers.

I'm certainly with Paul on the issue of the three strikers. We're simply not getting the best out of Bellamy in a wide midfield position - his strength is racing onto long balls and flicked headers to stretch the opposition's back line, and he just isn't getting the opportunity to do that, or get into scoring positions often enough. For a player who has hit the net with pleasing regularity thus far this season, this makes no sense, especially when we're overstocked with midfielders clamouring for a place. Bellamy should be moved up front, with Kluivert - who continues to show neat touches but has provided little threat in recent matches - dropping to the bench.

Then there is the Robert issue. Much as I appreciate the frustrations of other Newcastle fans with the mercurial Frenchman (mindful as I am of my own irritation at his frequent lazy and lacklustre displays), and much as I dislike his constant whingeing in the press, I think he should be reinstated on the left side of midfield on a more permanent basis. This would not be to capitulate to his moaning, but to make a decision for the good of the team. Though he still needs to improve his overall contribution to the side, even on off days his delivery from wide positions and set pieces is so dangerous that we can't do without it, especially with a predator like Shearer demanding service.

Without Robert, we've looked too narrow, and the lack of natural wide men in midfield puts too much onus on the full-backs - an onus which Bernard is happy to accept and capable of bearing, but which, in the absence of Carr, neither O'Brien nor Hughes are comfortable with. As things stand, I'd like to see Souness drop Bowyer, play Butt and Jenas in centre midfield and either make Dyer fill the right side role, giving him some creative scope which he wouldn't otherwise have in the middle, or bring Milner back in from the cold (as Paul suggested in his match report, his omission from the squad, along with that of Ambrose, scorer of a spectacular goal in his last appearance, remains a mystery).

In central defence, it looks as though Elliott's Indian summer has come to an end. Despite decent showings from both Bramble and Johnsen in the last two matches, we continue to ship goals at an alarming rate. The fact that our goal difference is now negative despite our scoring plenty and being blessed with a wealth of attacking talent tells its own story. Until we have a solid defensive platform on which to build - like Chelsea's, relentlessly shutting teams out - we'll continue to tread water and score goals in vain.

Unfortunately, until the New Year there's nothing Souness can do except to work harder on defensive drills in training. Come January, though, and the acquisition of at least one new composed and accomplished central defender is imperative, particularly as that's when Johnsen's short-term contract expires.

Today's papers see us linked once again with Rangers's summer signing Jean-Alain Boumsong, not long ago touted as a future regular for France. The rumoured £5m wouldn't represent a massive outlay - assuming, that is, that all the Woodgate money will be reinvested to strengthen the squad (potentially a foolish assumption, knowing Newcastle...) - and we could go out and get someone else too, though I'm still not wholly convinced that either Michael Dawson or Robert Huth are the long-term answer.

Plenty of food for thought for Souness, then.


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