After a memorable fortnight on Tyneside, Sam Winter reflects on the upturn of form and the emergence of squad depth at Newcastle United.
The best squad in his time here he said. But few would have agreed with Alan Pardew's statement as Newcastle languished and toiled in the opening exchanges this season. Yet in the space of 15 days the gloom has been lifted and replaced with optimistic excitement.
|Still alive: Alan Pardew has marshalled Newcastle's upturn in form|
A deserved win at home to Leicester has been followed by three fantastic victories against the league's Champions League chasers - including that wonderful cup night at the Etihad against the holders. Suddenly Newcastle are now as close to the top 4 as the bottom 3 and in the Quarter Final of a domestic cup for the first time since 2006.
The change in performance has been almost unrecognisable to the early struggles that had Pardew seemingly on his last thread. A couple of welcome Cisse braces eased the pain but it has been the sudden emergence of squad depth, something thought of as non existent just weeks ago, that has really got Newcastle motoring.
Nobody has epitomised Newcastle's upturn in fortunes more than Gabriel Obertan. First name on the team sheet after an assist at Swansea, the much maligned Frenchman was the hero in Newcastle's first league win of the season. Against City he was Newcastle's outlet, keeping the ball superbly and threatening City, drawing fouls and showing the quality we've barely seen in his 3 years on Tyneside. The disappointment at his injury blow says it all about his improvement.
|Gabriel Obertan was flying before cruel injury blow|
Similarly to Obertan is Sammy Ameobi; someone often publicly lamented by his Manager for threatening to waste enormous talent. He has been excellent in recent weeks, and that goal at Spurs will have done him the world of good. And what about Rolando Aarons, how good is it to have the 18 year old back in contention. How good can this lad be? Bursting past world class players, getting the crowd on their feet. And he has an eye for goal.
My favourite inclusion at the weekend was Mehdi Abeid. Quietly magnificent in the cup, efficient in thwarting the might of Yaya Toure. There wasn't a player you could fault that night, but Abeid certainly caught his Manager's eye most - and proceeded to better Steven Gerrard 3 days later. Suddenly he's a key player; another initially thought to be on their way out in pre season. He showed in his loan spell at Panathinaikos that he has the ability - now his chance has come to really shine at his parent club. All of a sudden there's huge competition for places in the engine room, Vurnon Anita finding out more than most by not making the last two squads.
|Ready Mehdi: Abeid has suddenly become a key player in the midfield|
Moussa Sissoko has been magnificent and highly praised by all corners of the game. Deservedly so, the powerhouse finding some consistency at long last; demonstrating his considerable ability with driving runs that have led to winning goals in each of the last two league games, plus one for himself in Manchester. He has been Newcastle's main threat of late and his form has been more welcome than surprising - unlike the main beneficiary of his service.
|The Beast: Moussa Sissoko is showing his best form|
As Emmanual Riviere struggled with the goalscoring burden, it was like answered prayer seeing Papiss Cisse return to action. The Number 9 rescued draws, but a once unknown from Tenerife has been stealing victories. Ayoze Perez is another remarkable find from Graham Carr, allegedly snubbing La Liga giants to head to England. Far from ready for regular Premier League hustle and bustle, the 21 year old has however shown a deadly eye for goal. A brilliant header at Spurs followed by a poachers instinct at St James' Park and Newcastle now have goalscoring options too. Cisse will rightly continue to lead the line, but what a great option to have off the bench.
|Made in Tenerife: Ayoze Perez is fast becoming a goalscoring hero on Tyneside|
Newcastle's recent defending has been a stark contrast in recent games to that of August and September. The capitulation at Southampton and the domination against Liverpool couldn't be further apart. People have been quick to mention Mike Williamson's absence, but it has been his replacement that deserves a huge chunk of credit.
Steven Taylor has taken a great deal of flak in the last couple of years, most of which I can't understand. Perhaps the doom and gloomers have been dismayed by his continuous show of passion in dire times, or him being the player to come out and face the media after another thrashing. Fitness and injuries have always been his issue but there is no doubting that Newcastle's best centre half pairing has always been Taylor and Coloccini during Pardew's reign.
It was Taylor and the skipper who had that fantastic defensive record as Newcastle were unbeaten until this time in 2011 when Taylor's Achilles went at home to Chelsea. The pair momentarily steadied a sinking ship the following season with the local lad earning an England call up in the process. And it is the two of them now that lead a Newcastle side who have conceded one goal in four fantastic matches. It's no coincidence.
|Taylor and Coloccini have shown why they're Newcastle's best defensive pairing|
Coloccini's performances have also improved since Taylor's introduction, perhaps a greater confidence in his partner than in Williamson. The Captain was at his most enjoyable best against Liverpool, who just could not find a way through. Daryl Janmaat is improving all the time and put in a great display down the right. Paul Dummett was outstanding at City, and earned deserved praise from his Manager for stifling Raheem Sterling on Saturday.
And what about Ryan Taylor. What a story, what a man. Lumps in the throat after the final whistle at Eastlands, a true hero - and wasn't he excellent in his 90 minute return.
The biggest pinch of positivity I felt was an hour before kick off when I read Pardew's team for the Liverpool game. The fact that he was actually using the squad, rewarding the form players no matter what status or age. There was no "name" player like Anita taking the place of Abeid, and the frustratingly immovable Gouffran also not getting a sniff of action all of a sudden. Perhaps his omission will give him the opportunity to re-energise and find some form. Remy Cabella had a lovely cameo and is slowly but surely showing improvement, fighting for his place.
|Ryan Taylor's emotional return means further competition for places|
That's what it's all about, fighting to earn your spot. Competition for places. The Manager's headache. These young fringe players have earned their starting berth, now keep it. Keep the regular first-team players on the sidelines, keep the standards high. Alan Pardew has never really used the squad when he should have in the past, now it's his time to maintain this spirit and this healthy competition for the black and white shirt.
It's not a time to get carried away, but Newcastle have at least turned a corner. It's certainly a time to be positive, to look upwards rather than down. It's a time to kick on and show that beating Spurs, Manchester City, and Liverpool was no fluke. It's time to trust in this squad, and keep moving up the Premier League.