For any football fan, a new year doesn’t mean unkept resolutions or head-splitting hangovers as much as the start of a month of rumours, gossip and downright lies. Goalposts for Goalposts looks at two players linked with Newcastle, segues seamlessly into Joey Barton appreciation, and also makes mention of Jean-Alain Boumsong.
Feelings toward the January Transfer Window is one of the best indicators of the divide between those lucky few who get to manage a real football team and the countless hordes who can only do so on Football Manager. For the real-lifers it’s a horrendous month, where meticulously assembled squads are ripped apart by those clubs with better/richer/more chickeny owners and a bunch of sub-standard replacements must be shipped in at inflated prices from the continent. For those of us whose only experience of this job is virtual, it’s a chance to offload the misfiring striker who long ago stopped speaking to you and replace him with the latest young Argentinian wunderkind.
Now, being a Newcastle fan means that I have ample experience of the horrors that can occur in this month, the list of players brought in searing me to the very core: Leon Best, Oguchi Onyewu, Michael Bridges and, mostly, Jean-Alain Boumsong (£8 million!).* For this season’s iteration of the window, something new seems to be happening on Tyneside. No longer are the Toon linked with poor players in positions where they need reinforcement; now all the gossip surrounds good players in probably the strongest position in the team.
I am talking about the two Davids, Beckham and Bentley. Both England-capped right sided midfielders, if with slightly different styles, both scorers of sensational long-range goals and both masters of controversial/downright stupid haircuts. Neither are needed at St. James’ Park, for Newcastle now boast one of the league’s most in-form midfielders, a man playing in an unfamiliar position called Joey Barton.
For all the talk of Andy Carroll this season (and he has been a revelation, dominating defences and doing absolutely nothing to dispel the Shearer comparisons), Joey Barton has been Newcastle’s best player. When Chris Hughton unveiled the new-look Newcastle formation earlier this season I, along with many others, was waiting to be convinced. After all, this was 2010 post-World Cup. 4-4-2 was dead, and there wasn’t a little man to be seen up front, Hughton instead preferring the slightly more old-fashioned abilities of Carroll and Shola Ameobi (combined height 12 ft 5 in). However it worked, and more than that, it worked incredibly well. And the number one reason for that has been Joey Barton.
Barton is not a traditional wide midfielder. He possesses average pace and rarely looks to run past the opposition full back. What he does have is one of the best crosses in the league, economical passing and a prodigious work rate. A lot of the time he will drift inside from the wing, which frees full-back Danny Simpson to bomb down the touchline and provides Barton with 360° of passing options. One of the strikers will drop away from the defence to provide a forward option to feet, while the other is left open for the more prosaic ball lumped into the box with Gutierrez coming in from the left wing, freed to do so by Jose Enrique’s attacking mentality. With Barton having moved into the centre Newcastle now either match or outnumber the opposition midfield, meaning that either Kevin Nolan or Cheick Tiote can find the space to receive the ball. Or Barton can ignore all of this and stay wide, crossing the ball from deep onto the head of one of the two targetmen. The opposition should be wary of conceding any free kicks out wide, as the Barton-Carroll combination has been the undoing of more than one “Big Four” team this season. Without the ball he is as tenacious a tackler as they come, although admittedly his temperament can get the better of him, as Wigan’s James McArthur witnessed first hand this weekend.
When Alan Pardew speaks of bringing in players from Tottenham, Newcastle fans must hope that he means Robbie Keane or, at a pinch, Luka Modric. Because if Barton doesn’t play then Newcastle’s hopes of a top half finish this season will go south faster than Keane on his transfer back to White Hart Lane from Liverpool.
*One interesting aside to this is that the last time Newcastle didn’t sign any players in January (2005-06, due to the imminent departure of Graeme Souness) was the last time that they qualified for Europe, and this was with a team containing the likes of Boumsong, Titus Bramble, Albert Luque and Craig Moore, although hopefully not all at the same time.