There have been many factors that have contributed to Newcastle’s altogether dismal start to the season. Just one win in seven, lost five out of the last six, have not won away all season, and only four points above the relegation zone; Newcastle are in trouble, let’s not hide from that.
A lengthy injury list is a problem but not an excuse, likewise their European adventures and travails – indeed both of those factors could have been avoided if Newcastle had bolstered their playing ranks in the summer, rather than haggling over potential signings to the point where nobody would do business.
But what perhaps has been most symptomatic of the Magpies season so far is the misfiring and stuttering performances of some of their star performers. This article could have been devoted to any number of them, and was almost about Newcastle’s hero to zero striker Papiss Cissé. But one player tops him for his drastic fall from grace: Cheick Tioté
The season before last, Tioté was strongly linked with a £30m move to Premier League title-chasers Chelsea. Last season he formed one of the most effective and exciting midfield partnerships in the league alongside Yohan Cabaye. This season, so far, Tioté has been at best off form, and at worst, a liability.
On his game Tioté is a force of nature. He covers the pitch with supreme energy, hassling opposition players, shackling strikers, putting in tackles, providing the back four withan outlet, joining attacks. He can be the perfect foil to Newcastle’s defence, a stonewall equivalent of the Great Wall of China across the St James’ Park turf. Ferocious, energetic and tenacious, Tioté can be one of, if not the, best defensive midfielder in the league.
Not this season. Far from it. Tioté has been clueless going forward, and completely reckless in defence. At Fulham on Monday night, there were numerous occasions when a loose pass from Tioté unleashed a Fulham attack on Newcastle’s unsuspecting defence. And last night was no one-off. Tioté appears to have lost his bearings, both of where his team mates are, and of where the opposition are.
Tioté has always had a problem with picking up needless bookings. He puts his foot in, refuses to let players go, and can sometimes cross the line between close marking and effective fouling. In the past, there has been some acceptance of that as a necessary evil because of the way he plays. This season though, many of his bookings have been the result of him chasing balls he has lost, getting to a challenge too late, or having to bring down a player who has got past him too easily.
In the first half against Wigan a week ago, something strange and novel happened. It seemed every time Tioté picked up the ball in the opposition half, he had a shot, no matter where he was or what was on. This from a player who has only ever scored once for Newcastle. It was like he was trying to prove his worth, trying to offer something. He is a professional footballer, so I can only hope and assume he recognises his own bad form. He was taken off at half-time.
The loss of Cabaye this season was a serious blow to Newcastle, but also to Tioté. They have not played a full 90 minutes together once this season. Their time together has been limited by assorted suspension and injuries, and you have to wonder what impact that has had on Tioté. With Cabaye alongside him, Tioté can play the enforcer, with the wonderfully classy and calm Frenchman pulling the strings. Last season they clicked, and it looked like perhaps Cabaye was the perfect foil for Tioté’s rampaging bull routine. But without him, the Ivorian has had the look of a circus elephant running amok in the town centre, bundling his way around the pitch, crashing into opponents, passing balls to nobody.
I am not saying Tioté has become a bad player. Tioté at his best is a world class player and integral to Newcastle’s team. I am saying however, that at the moment, he is doing more damage than good. Newcastle need to be solid and stable so that they can start to grind out results and arrest this serious slump. But with Tioté at the heart of their midfield, stability is the last thing Alan Pardew can expect. If Cabaye were fit, I would say rest Tioté and play Cabaye with the rapidly improving Vurnon Anita, who is starting to look like a top quality player. Instead, I wonder if it is time for Pardew to turn to his favourite Mr Versatile, James ‘Perchinio’ Perch. Just last season it would have been astonishing to me to find myself even considering dropping Tioté for Perch, but desperate times call for James Perch.
In the long term, Tioté should come good again. He needs to go back to basics, and try to rediscover his best form. But in the short term, Tioté is a liability that Newcastle can ill afford.