Demba Ba left Newcastle and his signing for Chelsea was confirmed last Friday morning; he played for his new club and scored twice in their 5-1 FA Cup victory at Southampton the following day; and his appearance on Wednesday night against Swansea only from the substitute’s bench, and then much too late, has put a certain pressure on Rafa Benitez given Chelsea’s defeat and Fernando Torres’s poor run of form, or alternately – given that this form has lasted at least a couple of seasons now – his absolute lack of ability.
Meanwhile, Newcastle comprehensively lost their FA Cup tie away at Brighton and – in the middle of a run which has seen them lose seven of their last eight games; or eleven of their last fourteen; or which has seen them record just two victories over their last sixteen matches in all competitions – are presumably, in theory, hope against hope, in the process of locating and procuring a replacement striker.
The signing of right-back Mathieu Debuchy was overdue but nevertheless much needed and wholeheartedly welcome. Yet Newcastle’s defensive line, the foundation of last season’s success, has been increasingly exposed this, conceding fifteen goals over the last four games; and if this Friday morning’s suggestions regarding Fabricio Coloccini – a story broken on the back page of The Independent after increasing rumours over the last several weeks – turn out to bear truth, then Debuchy alone will be insufficient towards improving the team’s defensive strength and organisation. It may still be expected that he’ll provide width, crossing ability and an attacking intent which the side has lacked down the right flank for more than two years. Ideally, his signing would see the team shift and settle upon the 4-3-3 formation which worked to such effect during the latter part of last season, and which seems to suit most of the players currently in the squad.
Despite Debuchy’s signing, even prior to the latest stories surrounding Coloccini, given the horrible run of results, and the team’s apparent lack of direction since the early stages of a season entered into without sufficient summer strengthening and reinforcement, the loss of Demba Ba, the club’s leading goalscorer by some margin, may have seemed a devastating blow. Yet from my perspective, as a Newcastle fan, it neither seems nor feels that way, owing to a range of issues which centre round the inability of Ba and his Senegalese striker partner Papiss Cisse to perform effectively together.
Cisse was signed last January, some of the £35 million received a year earlier for the sale of Andy Carroll finally being spent on a striking replacement. At that point in the 2011-12 season, Demba Ba had already managed 15 goals for the club; alongside Cisse for the remainder of the campaign, he only managed an additional one, in a match against Aston Villa in which Cisse came off the bench in the opening stages due to an injury sustained by Leon Best. While Ba began to struggle in front of goal, Cisse went on to finish the season with 13 goals.
With Hatem Ben Arfa establishing himself within the side as the months progressed, becoming an integral part of the team only in the season’s final third, Newcastle moved towards a 4-3-3 formation, Ben Arfa in his favoured position on the right of a front three, and Demba Ba occupying a position to the left of Cisse, who played as the central striker. For a period of time, even in this wider position, Ba was still getting chances, finding good goalscoring positions, and struck the woodwork on several occasions and was generally unfortunate not to score more goals. Towards the end of the season the chances dried up; but nevertheless Ba was an important part of a functioning and entertaining team, which finished the season strongly and only narrowly missed out on the top four.
Yet it was increasingly reported that Ba was unhappy playing on the left; and with the player seemingly of bold character and ready to express his agitations, and apparently possessing a degree of power owing to the stipulations of his contract allowing him to leave the club for a relatively small fee, at the start of this season Alan Pardew forewent the 4-3-3 and tended instead to accommodate Ba in a 4-4-2. In truth, the formation fluctuated uncertainly game after game, sometimes appearing like a 4-3-3 initially, sometimes a 4-5-1 or 4-4-1-1; but the strongest inclination was always towards a quite rigid 4-4-2, which does not get the best out of Ben Arfa, the club’s most talented attacking player, nor their host of centrally-minded midfielders including Cabaye, Anita, Marveaux, and present-day Gutierrez. Moving into late November and then December – with Ba scoring on a fairly consistent basis but Cisse struggling for form and lacking confidence; with Pardew increasingly negative as the side’s form deteriorated; and then especially after Ben Arfa’s injury – Cisse began playing down the right, more and more in a 4-5-1 formation requiring him to fulfill much defensive work, leaving Ba the team’s striker and sole attacking outlet.
Certainly Ba and Cisse utterly failed to complement each other playing together in a 4-4-2. Both are greedy for goals, and would occupy the same positions and make the same runs, neither dropping deep nor moving wide on a regular basis to provide options and to support the team’s build-up play. In fact, there was a tendency at times for both players to charge towards the opposition penalty area whenever Ben Arfa picked up the ball, expecting him to beat hoards of defenders and provide simple, unaided goalscoring opportunities. Both playing as strikers, and with a certain competition between the two, the pair played selfishly and too similarly. Still, they aren’t identical players; and in their differing gifts, they were capable of playing well together, and really working for the team, precisely in the 4-3-3 formation which was really stumbled upon last season.
Both players are supremely clinical and creative finishers: with the ball in or about the box, they see opportunities to strike which other forwards don’t see, and are agile and alert and can finish in a variety of ways. Whilst both possess reasonable pace and good acceleration, neither player is exceptionally quick, and they are not especially assertive when it comes to battling opposition centre-backs and winning balls in the air. Where the two differ, their different capabilities make Ba well suited to a wider role, Cisse well suited (and only suited) to a central one. Ba is capable of running with the ball from a deeper position, playing a pass, and cutting inside from the left and shooting from outside of the area. Cisse can exchange quick passes in the confined space between opposition centre-backs, is better at holding up the ball than Ba, and where they both move effectively off a last defender into space, I think Cisse is also better at finding space in the penalty area.
Undoubtedly Ba scored at an exceptional rate throughout his time with Newcastle. His record stands at 29 goals from 54 competitive games – just over a goal every two games; or 0.537 goals a game. Comparing him with previous leading goalscorers of my lifetime, his strike rate is just ahead of Alan Shearer’s, whose 206 goals were scored over the much more extensive period of 395 games (0.522 goals a game); behind Les Ferdinand’s, with 50 from 81 (0.617); and behind Andy Cole’s, with a phenomenal 68 from 83 (0.819). He betters Michael Owen’s rate of 30 goals from 65 games (0.461) (Owen also appeared fourteen times from the bench); and considerably betters the goalscoring ratios of even respected strikers like Craig Bellamy (42 from 119; 0.353) and Faustino Asprilla (18 from 50; 0.36). Ba’s conversion rate may well better that of anybody listed above: he scored goals in a team which often wasn’t fully functioning or creating much. Still, he didn’t carve his own chances in the way that Cole did through his pace and extra agility; didn’t offer the aerial threat of Ferdinand or Shearer; and didn’t contribute as much to our overall play. Cisse currently stands with 18 goals from 35 competitive games.
The point is that knowing the extent to which this season’s system has utterly failed; believing that it wasn’t soon going to be rectified by the manager, and that Ba readily and even aggressively pushed the move away from the 4-3-3 which brought our only spell of genuinely good football in recent memory, his signing for Chelsea doesn’t in the end feel like a disaster. The speculation regarding his availability was disruptive, especially since it seemed encouraged by the player and his team of agents and advisers, and his departing felt inevitable; it presents a chance to move on and to establish a coherent attacking shape and style of play. With Cisse leading the line, Ben Arfa scheduled to return at the beginning of February, and the signing of an established attacker capable of playing proactively, capably and contentedly in a secondary or wider role, Ba’s departure could be turned into a positive, could be a cause for optimism. Of course, this is Newcastle; the signing of a new forward does not appear imminent; the manager seems increasingly out of his depth; our captain reportedly wants, needs, absolutely must leave the club this transfer window; in short, in a word, there are other problems.