The Newcastle United team basically picks itself when we are at full strength. That isn't because we have a set of 11 players who are on such red-hot form that picking anything other than those 11 players would be sheer madness. No, it is because our bench/fringe players are so lacking in quality that Pardew has no other choice but to pick the same players week in week out - with the possible exception of M'biwa, Haidara and Anita who could, on their day, stake a realistic claim for starting.
So needless to say, when injuries and suspension hit, some serious shuffling needs to be done, and as is always the case when a settled team has to shuffle around, sometimes cracks appear, as was the case in our FA Cup disaster last weekend at home to Cardiff. Arguably we had a strong enough team on show to win that game, but also in the same token, it could be said that by playing players who had just come through a long, arduous Christmas period, they were dead on their feet and needed to be rotated. Gouffran was one such example.
While the likes of Lee Charnley and John Irving, in the latest Fan's Forum on Monday, intimated that the team on display was strong enough to win the FA Cup game against Cardiff, I personally disagree. I looked at the areas in which we rotated - Rob Elliott came in for Tim Krul, Steven Taylor came in for Mike Williamson, and M'biwa came in for the injured Colo. Santon moved to right back in place of the suspended Mathieu Debuchy and Massadio Haidara replaced him at left back. Papiss Cisse replaced Loic Remy up front, Anita came in for Cabaye and Hatem Ben Arfa replaced Shola. As I said before, with the exception of M'biwa, Anita and Haidara, the other replacements were simply not good enough, and will never be good enough to provide sufficient depth for a Premier League side.
Rob Elliott is a decent understudy, but is Championship level at best. He performed well enough when called upon last season in place of Tim Krul when he was suffering various different injuries and he seems like a model pro. However, he is no Harper/Given. He is no Krul/Harper. Newcastle United have a history of having quality understudies in nets and unfortunately Elliott, while good, does not seem like he will ever make the grade in the top flight.
Papiss Cisse is an enigma. Despite scoring 13 goals in his first 14 games for the club, I have had to come to the conclusion that he is simply a poor striker who no longer deserves to be at this club. While he may have scored last weekend, it was a rare, and rather bundled goal. His only other goals this season have come in the League Cup against Leeds, and a gift, quite literally, from the penalty spot against Stoke in the 5-1 victory a few weeks ago. Some argued that it was a dip in confidence that did it for him, due to Demba Ba being preferred up front on his own, and Cisse being farmed out to the right-wing, and when Cisse was played down the middle, the goals would come. I even believed that story myself, but alas it was a false prophecy. Eight league goals last season is testament to that fact. He makes poor decisions, makes poor runs, is not clinical enough in a one-on-one situation and has no other redeeming features that could possibly make him a decent option for the team. His hold up play is non-existent, lacks any aerial ability whatsoever, and unless he is firing on all cylinders, like he was when he first signed, is an absolute liability. As things stand, Shola Ameobi is higher up the pecking order than wor Papiss, and when that happens, you know you're out of favour. Papiss Cisse will never make it at this club and I hope the club sell him and replace him with someone who could actually give Pardew a few selection headaches due to the options they bring to the team. As it stands, Cisse is giving the fan base a collective headache with his sheer inability to do anything of worth.
However, it is in defence where I worry the most. Mike Williamson has come from nowhere this season and has made himself No 1 centre-half this season. While I will continue to dispute that he is not really good enough to be considered our best centre back, I must concede that on form, this is indeed the case and long may it continue as he has been nothing short of a revelation this season. What has complemented this partnership is the return to some semblance of form of Fabricio Colocinni. He still remains a shadow of his former self, but alongside Williamson we have seemed to have found a combination that works well for us. With the emergence to stardom of right back Mathieu Debuchy we also seemed to have unearthed another gem this season. So you can imagine how worried I was last weekend - following the injury to Colo and the suspension of Debuchy - when I saw Steven Taylor lining out at centre back and Davide Santon lining out at right back.
Let me put this in unequivocal language. Neither Steven Taylor, nor Davide Santon, should be let within 10 miles of a Premier League defence. Steven Taylor is clumsy, lacks concentration, cannot hold the line to save his life, and is an all-round buffoon who reminds me of the heady days of Bramble and Boumsong *shudders*. Davide Santon lacks any of the attributes required of even the most basic, bog-standard Premier League full-back. He has no spatial/positional awareness. He fails 9/10 to close down the cross. Lacks any strength in the tackle. Has no aerial prowess. Needs constant guidance to hold the line, and isn't even that good going forward from defence into attack, and when he does (and inevitably loses the ball) he takes forever and a day to get back into position. All of this is when he is playing in his preferred left-back position! He is even worse when he is playing right-back!
I am not even going to broach the subject of Hatem Ben Arfa in this essay because my feelings on him are akin to my feelings on Santon, and have been for some time. I feel that some of our fans are more lenient in their assessments of these two because they can do pretty things with the ball at their feet. Well I am sorry. I care more about what a player brings to the team, than what he can do for his own ego.
As we head into a very difficult game on Sunday, against a side brimming with confidence, and brimming with goals, I fear the worst. Our midfield and forward line picks itself due to lack of depth, and we can pretty much guess which four will be lining up in our defence on Sunday (albeit the permutations may differ) and that fills me with dread. I would be amazed, and impressed if we escaped on Sunday with a clean-sheet and unless something is done either in this transfer window, or at the very least, the summer transfer window to rid our squad of some the inept mediocrity that is plaguing it - I haven't even begun to lay into Obertan, Marveaux and Jonas! - and replace it with young, hungry, talented players who could actually provide something for our first team, I think we will be looking at mid-table and early cup exits for a long time to come.
Negative? Yes. Wrong? Not on your life.