Pardew’s change in formation was a stroke of genius
There are certain unwritten rules in football: you don’t play the ball across your own box, you don’t make a substitution when your side is defending a corner, and you don’t change a winning team.
Alan Pardew, however, did change a winning team. Newcastle’s performance over the course of the season was as remarkable as it was unexpected, but what was particularly impressive was how Pardew changed the structure and feel of his side midway through the season: ditching the boxy, rigid 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 he used throughout the first half of the season in favour of a more exciting 4-3-3 in the final months.
A major reason for the change was the signing of Papiss Cissé. While it would have been quite possible for Pardew to play Cissé and Demba Ba up front together in a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1, Pardew watched Ba and Cissé’s performance up front together for Senegal at the Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year. Senegal lost all three group matches 2-1, and while Ba and Cissé only started together up front once, it clearly didn’t work – they were beaten by Equatorial Guinea.
Ba has unquestionably been marginalised by his move out to the left in the 4-3-3, and sometimes – such as in Newcastle’s 2-0 win away at Swansea – Pardew has been forced to substitute him, because his defensive awareness is often lacking. However, this has been more than compensated for by the form of Cissé, who has scored 13 goals from 13 starts.
Perhaps the real key, however, has been Ben Arfa’s increased importance in the side. He only started five league games until the start of March – partly because he was recovering from injury, but also because Pardew struggled to find a role for him in the 4-4-1-1. When fielded behind Ba, too much of Newcastle’s play depended upon the Frenchman, still getting back to match fitness. When used wide on the right, he often neglected his defensive duties. His first start of the season coincided with Newcastle’s first defeat of the season.
In the 4-3-3, however, he has less defensive responsibility and can play higher up, closer to goal. The balance from the wings in Newcastle’s new formation is perfect – they have Ba on one flank looking to become a second centre forward, and Ben Arfa on the other, coming inside and wanting the ball played into feet.
That also gives Pardew the flexibility to move back to a 4-4-2 if needed, although it’s arguable he went for this approach too readily at the end of the season. In the 2-0 defeat to Manchester City, for example, there was a yawning gap between the midfield – which always plays very deep – and the two strikers, and Newcastle struggled to create chances. That only underlined how important the switch to 4-3-3 was, and if there’s a time and a place for the 4-4-2, it’s probably against weaker sides.
Still, like Wigan’s mid-season switch to a 3-4-3, which prompted their incredible run in the last couple of months, Pardew’s move shows the value of tactical flexibility. Graham Carr has rightly received great praise for making astute signings, but Pardew’s decision making regarding how those players should be used has been the primary reason for Newcastle’s success.
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