Narrow-mindedness will kill Newcastle
PREMIER League managers that anticipate their team being engaged in the battle at the wrong end of the table often talk of winning their own 'mini-league'.
Aware that a moneyed elite have annexed the top ten for themselves, the challenge for the likes of Newcastle and Sunderland is to best Bolton, Fulham, Wigan et al and clamber to the top of the bottom half of the league.
Humbling for a club that was taking on Europe's elite a decade ago? Certainly. But let's be realistic - the rebuilding job is in it's formative years and United need to flex their muscles against the middleweights before stepping up their ambitions.
And this is where I spied the first evidence of a potential problem for Chris Hughton if he persists with his 4-4-1-1 formation when their mid-ranking rivals roll up at St James' Park.
Consider this: five months ago Newcastle pulverised Blackpool on their way to winning the Championship. Ian Holloway's men were walloped 4-1 but such was their swaggering dominance, the Magpies could have run up double figures on the day. Moving the ball with confidence and at speed, United found space and stretched the static Blackpool defence to breaking point.
On Saturday - with only minor tweaks on either side - Blackpool turned the tables completely. True, they rode their luck at times. And Blackpool's goakeeper Matt Gilks was inspired, pulling off a succession of terrific saves. But there was a much surer feel about the Tangerines - while Newcastle lacked the fluency moving forward that they had shown in the Spring.
So what changed? Well Blackpool, riding on the crest of a Premier League wave, overcame their inferiority complex for a start.
But a more forensic sift through the wreckage of Saturday's defeat uncovers a more fundamental problem - one that could come back to haunt United when they come up against their 'mini-league' rivals at St James' Park.
Simply, they lacked width. Look at the scorers back in April - Jonas Gutierrez, Andy Carroll, Kevin Nolan and Wayne Routledge. That day the Argentinian was outstanding - scoring the first and making Nolan's goal with a trademark jinking run. On Saturday nothing went for him, and Routledge - who disappeared for long spells and cut a disconsolate figure at the end - was not much better.
The system hardly helps. Whatever Hughton says, it is a defensive formation because it employs Alan Smith playing a deep-lying role to protect the back four. He wasn't needed on Saturday because Blackpool were not pressing consistently - instead they gave 'Quarterback' Charlie Adam plenty of possession and he picked out the passes on the counter-attack. Most of these balls by-passed the midfield and Smith.
4-4-1-1 means you also lose some of Nolan's attacking urgency, compressing play throught the middle and forcing Routledge and Gutierrez to come inside to seek the ball.
It didn't help that the pair were having off-days. Gutierrez seems to be the main fall guy but at least he never stopped running. Routledge too offered effort but there were times when he looked lost out on the wing. Undoubtedly Hatem Ben Arfa will come into Hughton's thinking at Goodison Park - although I would like to see him given a central role and hand the two wingers a chance to atone on Merseyside.
Because If United are to prosper this season they need Gutierrez and Routledge to replicate the impact of last season. Of course, it won't always be possible to push them forward - and against the big boys Hughton is entirely correct to rein in their offensive instincts. But when the likes of Blackpool come knocking, United's two wingers must be given licence - and take it - or they will struggle to compete, 'mini league' or no 'mini league'.