Newcastle United are in dire trouble – and boss Steve McClaren must come up with a tactical plan that will get his side moving up the Premier League table.
And for Magpie fans, there will be no better time to start than when McClaren comes up against one of his predeccesors in the Toon hotseat, Alan Pardew, on Saturday when Newcastle visit Crystal Palace.
After the woeful performance against Leicester, which saw Newcastle put in a pathetic display in crashing to a 3-0 defeat, the side sit just one point above the Premier League relegation zone with a tough run of fixtures, having won just two league games all season
Can McClaren turn things around, starting at Selhurst Park? Here are ? areas he must address.
1) Should Steve McClaren follow Sam Allardyce’s tactical plan?
Newcastle head to Selhurst Park just five days after their former boss, Allardyce, masterminded a 1-0 win for Sunderland at the same ground.
Allardyce sprung a tactical surprise on Pardew, opting to play 3-5-2 to counter Palace’s pace out wide and crosses into the box.
It worked a treat. Sunderland kept a rare clean sheet and nullified Palace’s threat, with the three centre-halves outstanding, along with good displays from wing-backs Billy Jones and Patrick van Aanholt.
With Newcastle’s defensive problems, McClaren may consider changing his formation to tighten up at the back. Jamaal Lascelles could come into the centre of defence alongside Fabricio Coloccini and Chancel Mbemba, leaving Daryl Janmaat and Paul Dummett out wide.
Alternatively, if Massadio Haidara is fit, he could play on the left with Dummett tucking into the middle.
The system would also give United an extra man in the centre of midfield to counter the threat of their old playmaker, Yohan Cabaye.
McClaren, however, could keep his back four intact and instead revert to the formation he used at the start of the season, with five across the midfield and one lone striker. That may be his safest bet.
2) Who should replace Cheick Tiote in the Newcastle engine room?
Newcastle have a midfield crisis, there is no doubt about that. Tiote’s groin strain, picked up against Leicester, will mean he misses Saturday’s game, and with Jack Colback also injured, McClaren is short of options in the centre of the park.
He could play Georginio Wijnaldum in there alongside Vurnon Anita, as he did after Tiote’s withdrawal at the weekend, which would probably mean a start for Florian Thauvin out wide.
Other options include moving Moussa Sissoko inside and keeping Wijnaldum on the left, or bringing in Yoan Gouffran from the cold.
Gouffran told the Gazette this week that he thinks McClaren sees him as a central midfielder now, and played in that defensive role alongside Anita against Manchester City last month, where United fared well for 45 minutes.
There are options to the Newcastle head coach – but it may be that he goes for safety in numbers and decides to bolster that area with a change in system to get three in there.
3) Aleksandar Mitrovic’s place is in doubt
After a terrible individual display against Leicester, McClaren admitted Mitrovic could be axed from the starting XI this weekend.
Mitrovic looked sluggish, and it followed on from criticism of him while he was away on international duty with Serbia.
The 20-year-old’s partnership with Ayoze Perez has shown signs of blossoming, but – with only two goals to his name this season – it may be that McClaren decides to take him out of the firing line for a couple of games.
Papiss Cisse and Siem de Jong are waiting in the wings, or McClaren could opt to play Perez up front on his own against Palace.
4) Is it now time to give Siem de Jong a start?
How do you solve a problem like Siem?
The Dutchman has endured a torrid time with injuries since the fanfare of his £6million move from Ajax last year, but now claims to be fully fit and raring to go.
McClaren has talked up the attacker, and says he wants to keep him, but doesn’t seem to know whether to play him as a forward, No 10 or central midfielder, instead hoping to get him into the game late on in the hope tht he can make something happen in the final third.
But if a player with international and Champions League experience can’t get in this struggling team now, then he probably has no future on Tyneside.
5) Is Fabricio Coloccini still the best bet to lead the defence?
Let’s make no bones about it – Coloccini was terrible against Leicester. And to be honest, he’s been below par for several seasons now.
The last time I wrote his place must be in doubt, he pulled out a briliant individual display against Manchester United to help earn his side a point at Old Trafford.
But those performances are rare, not the norm.
The trouble is for McClaren, the lack of options. Lascelles is untried at that level, having had a mixed campaign with Nottingham Forest in the Championship last season, while Steven Taylor remains injured.
The decision to hand Coloccini a new contract in the summer rather than signing a new defender looks more flawed by the day.
6) Karl Darlow’s return to fitness gives McClaren an option
One bit of good news is the return to fitness of Darlow.
Rob Elliot should keep his place against palace, but Darlow started the season as No 2 behind Tim Krul and gives McClaren a decision to make should Elliot not maintain the high standards he produced against Bournemouth.