Newcastle manager Alan Pardew was in a chipper mood after defeating Tottenham Hotspur on the opening weekend of the season.
"I don't think you can underestimate the importance of that win," he said, his team having triumphed in a tight contest settled by Hatem Ben Arfa's penalty. He was referring to the spirit and resilience of his side; he can hardly have imagined at that stage that the win would be important for being one of only four in the season's first 16 matches.
This weekend Newcastle hosts Manchester City and finishes the month with daunting trips to Manchester United and Arsenal -- and the Jan. 2 visit of Everton looks barely more inviting.
No wonder Pardew has spoken this week about the club looking over its shoulder: Newcastle sits two points above relegation and is winless away from home. Pardew's team is 10 points worse off than at this stage last season and yet is fortunate to have accumulated some of the points it has. Everton, Reading and West Bromwich Albion can all feel hard done by in their meetings with Newcastle, though Newcastle might finger the Tyne-Wear derby and the recent trip to Stoke as its own hard-luck stories. Having finished fifth last season, above Chelsea, this was not what the fans hoped for from the new campaign.
Some of them will say this is just what they expected, though, after a summer in which low-cost deals for Gael Bigirimana (£1 million) and Vurnon Anita (£6 million) involved the club's most significant transfer outlay. For all the talk of that £35 million price tag hanging around Andy Carroll's neck, it has weighed just as heavy on Tyneside as supporters wait to see the full sum reinvested.
Owner Mike Ashley remains unpopular, and a conservative summer -- holding on to the players who starred last season was the main business -- coupled with the eight-year contracts given to Pardew and his staff has led to accusations of complacency (and that's just from the people putting it politely).
"Fans are getting a bit of a misconception about us," is Pardew's response. "There is a suggestion we're not working as hard or something like that. It's absolutely ridiculous. You actually work harder in these periods. It's not a question of security, or money, it's about winning. We want to win. We are hurting, all of us. Mike Ashley wanted stability at the club and that was his point with the contract."
Certainly managers should not be expected to live in constant fear of being handed their P45s, and no doubt there are fans at some of the Premier League's top clubs who would love to see youngsters given the chances that players such as Shane Ferguson and Sammy Ameobi have been, even if Pardew's hand has been forced by circumstance. The manager continues to keep track of the recovery of 18-year-old defender Remie Streete, insisting he already has the qualities to play first-team football. These are not the kind of arguments that many people would want to be first at hand with the club limping toward the January transfer window, however. No one wants to hear about long-term squad development when injuries to key players have been so costly.
In the second week of the season Newcastle was simply outclassed by Chelsea in its early pomp, but in the 1-1 draw with Aston Villa that followed, the absence of Cheik Tiote had a tangible impact, as it did against Liverpool when the defensive midfielder was suspended in the wake of his derby-day sending off.
Against Manchester United, Newcastle was missing goalkeeper Tim Krul as well as the central defenders Steven Taylor and Fabricio Coloccini; within 15 minutes the Manchester side was two goals up, both headers scored with ease from corners. Set pieces have continued to be a problem for Pardew's side. Taylor's return cannot come soon enough. Otherwise it is here that some of the money Pardew has suggested is earmarked for January must be spent.
Newcastle perhaps had the chances to beat Swansea City in mid-November, but without Papiss Cisse, Yohan Cabaye and even the increasingly maligned Jonas Gutierrez, the team played most of its football in front of the Swansea lines. A week later Southampton thrilled in the absence of both Ben Arfa (Newcastle's principle fire-starter this season and a huge miss for Saturday's game against Manchester City) and Cabaye, but the recent 3-0 win over Wigan Athletic came with both off the pitch, and plenty of disappointing results have come with the pair on it.
"We're a strong side who are underperforming," Pardew said. "But the injuries and the suspensions and the Europa League ... you can't say that hasn't had an impact."
No, we can't, and yet the first part of the manager's assessment also needs addressing: Newcastle has lost its groove. Too often this season it has looked disorganized, struggling for rhythm. The suggestion that the team simply took everybody by surprise last season and is thus easier to play this time around lacks nuance; the inhibition of Newcastle's slick, short passing game has often had as much to do with the failure of players to exploit the space available.
When Everton lost to Newcastle last season, manager David Moyes commented on the confidence of Pardew's team compared to his own.
"We've got a lot of things missing from our game but, when you start losing matches, you begin seeing weaknesses in yourself," Moyes said.
Newcastle's convincing win over Wigan is supposed to be struck from consideration because Maynor Figueroa was sent off after 12 minutes, leaving things 11-versus-10 for the vast majority, but it was still a match that Newcastle should try to suck every last bit of confidence from. It seems foolish to ignore the performances of Sylvain Marveaux and Vurnon Anita, because there have been doubts about each, and each played well enough to suggest (if not confirm) that Pardew has more options than his persistence with Gutierrez and second-half switches to 4-4-2 indicate.
Fans and neutrals alike are writing off three out of Newcastle's next four fixtures, so there seems little to be lost in giving Marveaux a run on the left, either behind or in place of Demba Ba (Cisse is, surely, the best choice for the central role in Newcastle's front three, and Ben Arfa would keep his place to the right). The supply from that area of the pitch would be improved considerably, even on a bad day. If Ba does leave in January, and the rumor mill continues to whir round on that one, Newcastle may absorb the blow better for it. If he does not, it could be Cabaye's return from a groin injury that gives the manager a selection headache, for a change.