On the face of it the current Newcastle United squad are an assortment of rogues, misfits and rapscallions, a group of players that were brought together in adversity and charged with reviving the fortunes of one of English football’s fallen giants.The likes of Joey Barton, Andy Carroll and Hatem Ben Arfa have been written off in the past, labelled uncontrollable depots, their substantial abilities largely ignored. Those individuals may not have lost their edge entirely, but at St James’ Park this potentially explosive combination of players have gelled with a remarkable harmony to confound the prophets of doom.
Under the stewardship of Chris Hughton, who is fast developing a reputation as one of the Premier League’s most astute managers, Newcastle’s return to the top-flight has so far proved a roaring success. Currently sitting in seventh place with fourteen points from their ten games, the Magpies have re-established themselves as a competitive Premier League outfit with the minimum of fuss and some eye-catching football.
Sunday’s emphatic 5-1 demolition of local rivals Sunderland in the Tyne-Wear derby was a showcase of all that has been positive about Newcastle’s play to this point in the season. Set up in a straightforward 4-4-2 led by Andy Carroll and Shola Ameobi in attack, Newcastle’s system seems both well-balanced and well-suited to the strengths of the personnel within it.
As good as Carroll and Ameobi were on Sunday, the team’s drive and ingenuity came from midfield with Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton both putting in sparkling performances. Barton, once seen as little more than a snappy central midfielder, is rapidly blossoming into an accomplished, perhaps even elegant, right-sided player. His accuracy and range of passing has been phenomenal this season, his precision facilitating effective combinations with Carroll.
Nolan, meanwhile, has proved an inspirational figure as club captain, spurring the team on with all-action displays in the middle of the park and more than his fair share of goals. He has also formed a strong understanding with Cheick Tioté in central midfield, the Ivorian’s strength and positional discipline allowing Nolan more freedom to get forward, safe in the knowledge that Tioté is more than capable of deconstructing opposition counter-attacks in their formative stages.
Newcastle – with Barton and Jonás Gutiérrez out wide – may not be blessed with much in the way of pace on the flanks, but Hughton has remedied the problem by deploying an athletic pair of full-backs. James Perch and Danny Simpson, the contenders for the right-back berth, are both intelligent and efficient in getting forward (although perhaps a little naïve defensively), while José Enrique has continued to play in his usual reliable fashion, getting up and down the left side to good effect throughout the early stages of the season.
A centre-back pairing of Fabricio Coloccini and Mike Williamson has consistently shown itself to be stronger in reality than it is on paper, both players having enjoyed relatively error-free runs of form and providing stand-in ‘keeper Tim Krul with more than enough protection. It may not be the most glamorous team in the division, but Newcastle United have emerged from a season in The Championship with a side capable of matching (if not surpassing) many of their Premier League rivals.
The English season may still be very much in its early phases, but Newcastle will be delighted with the progress they are making. Little was expected of the Tyneside club on their return to the top level, so Chris Hughton and his players deserve a huge amount of credit for the way they have conducted and organised themselves this season. They may be an incongruous collection of individuals, but the likely lads have done good.