Everyone loves a strike partnership. Number 10s are one thing but the thought of two out-and-out strikers battering defences is irresistible. Just think of the maths. If you have two forwards each capable of scoring 30 goals a season then you'll be fine won't you? But it's clear the equation is not that simple.
At Newcastle the fact that Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse are both from Senegal appeared to add its own lustre to the prospect of the pairing. But the statistics are emphatic. Demba Ba scored 15 in 19 before the arrival of his compatriot. After scoring in Cisse's debut game, Ba failed to find the net in the next 14 matches.
When the goals did start flowing again for the former West Ham man, somebody turned the tap off at chez Cisse. The January signing from Freiburg scored 13 in first 12 games for the Magpies but managed just one fortunate goal in the next dozen.
To an extent there is no mystery here. Ba was shifted out wide shortly after Cisse's arrival and could not be expected to produce the same goal return from his new position. "How could you put your best striker with full confidence on the left wing?" came the rhetoric from Alex Gontran, Ba's agent.
"The choice to put Demba on the left last season was good for the club, because Cisse scored 13 goals. But there was a lack of recognition for Demba. It is more difficult to play well when you don't have the confidence of your staff."
Ba's ego had been pricked but the rumoured summer exit did not emerge. And manager Alan Pardew appears to have hoped the break would somehow solve the riddle when the new season began in August. Under pressure to accommodate his star names, the perception is that Pardew's solution has been to switch to a 4-4-2 formation.
Not that the manager himself sees it that way. "We have not changed the system," he told reporters. "Demba played many games defensively out there but then Demba would join him as a pair during the games. I don't think that's it. I think Cheick has had this disjointed season. Cabaye has a groin problem and that has meant he has not been at full capacity, so that's been a big thing behind Cisse.
"Last year, we coped no problem with having two in midfield. We could play two strikers. Sometimes we asked one of the strikers to defend the full-back when the opposition had possession. We coped with three central midfielders with Cheick and Cabaye. And quite rightly because they are world-class players. This year though, the midfield is an area where we haven't controlled it."
Perhaps mindful of Ba's discontent, Pardew has occasionally asked Cisse to drift to the right flank in much the same manner as his countryman was asked to occupy the left wing towards the end of last season. In the defeat to Manchester United in October, Cisse received the ball 19 times and only one of those occurrences was on the left side of the pitch - that was the kick-off. It has seldom been an authentic double act.As for the midfield issue, there is some evidence to support Pardew's praise of his key duo. Although different in style, Tiote and Cabaye were among the top 10 midfielders in the Premier League for tackles and interceptions last season. Whatever the nuances regarding the positioning of Hatem Ben Arfa and Ba, there is a persuasive case that the midfield pair were doing the defensive work of three players.
|Tackles/Interceptions (midfielders) - PL 2011/12|
|Player Name||Team||Number per game|
|Stiliyan Petrov||Aston Villa||5.8|
|Michael Carrick||Man Utd||5.4|
The front six lined up together as normal for the opening weekend triumph over Tottenham but since then Tiote and Cabaye have started just two Premier League games alongside each other - the home defeat to Manchester United and the Wear-Tyne derby in which the Ivory Coast man was sent off inside half an hour. With the Frenchman ruled out until February, they won't be reunited any time soon.
Newcastle have been unable to dominate the midfield and, increasingly, that has brought with it the temptation to bypass it instead. While the Magpies were unremarkable last season in terms of the amount of long balls played from the back, this campaign they top the table when it comes to the long stuff. Only West Ham, Stoke, Norwich and Reading have played fewer short passes.
In summary, Pardew has a point when he claims that he hasn't made dramatic tactical changes to Newcastle's formation this season. The difference in fortunes has been accentuated by the loss of key personnel. Where the manager has surely erred is in ignoring the evidence of the back end of last season that the system did not bring the best out of his players. Ba's struggles had indicated that it was never more than a fudge.
There were solutions available in the summer. Newcastle could have invested in a quality player who could cut in from wide positions, perhaps by selling one of their highly-prized strikers. He could even have opted to rotate his star forwards rather than the unhappy arrangement of rotating their wide duties. But without Cabaye and Tiote helping make sense of this attacking compromise, the Magpies look to be a team in regression.
What will be the outcome in the match Newcastle vs Wigan?