Newcastle United are back on Tyneside after their week-long training camp in Spain.
Steve McClaren took his Newcastle United players to La Manga during an 18-day break between Premier League fixtures, and the club’s players benefited from twice-daily sessions and a friendly game against Lillestrom.
A 2-1 win concluded a positive break for McClaren, but back on Tyneside now he still has a lot on his mind given his side’s abject performance in the 5-1 defeat to Chelsea in their last Premier League game which saw the club drop back into the Premier League’s relegation zone.
Here are four issues that the head coach still needs to address before Newcastle’s game against Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium on March 2:
Steve McClaren played down the importance of the captaincy in pre-season when he couldn’t get Fabricio Coloccini on to the pitch for the club’s warm-up programme.
Coloccini eventually made his seasonal debut in the first Premier League game of the season. Entirely coincidentally, he was handed a contract extension, and told he would be McClaren’s captain, a few days earlier.
Despite having not seen him kick a ball in any of the club’s friendlies, McClaren said at the time: “From day one at the club, Fabricio Coloccini has been a stand-out character.”
Coloccini has stood out this season – but not always for the right reasons.
And former United head coach John Carver – who kept him as his skipper last season after succeeding Alan Pardew – has questioned Coloccini’s leadership.
At his best, Coloccini doesn’t need to say much as he leads by example. But the example the centre-half has set this season hasn’t been one which should be followed.
Carver said the 34-year-old “plays for himself”.
There has long been a question mark above Coloccini’s captaincy – he is not a particularly demonstrative or vocal player – and calls for him to be stripped of the armband won’t go away.
At his best, Coloccini doesn’t need to say much as he leads by example.
But the example the centre-half has set this season hasn’t been one which should be followed.
The Argentinian didn’t play against Lillestrom, with new boy Jonjo Shelvey handed the armband ahead of the likes of Daryl Janmaat, Steven Taylor and Georginio Wijnaldum, who skippered PSV Eindhoven to the Eredivisie title last season.
It later emerged the Toon captain has a calf injury.
Shelvey, meanwhile, responded with a vocal performanc,e and the fact he was given the honour despite only being at the club a matter of weeks was perhaps an insight into McClaren’s thinking for the rest of the campaign.
Last summer, McClaren pledged to sort out Newcastle’s defence.
Answering a question on a radio phone-in, McClaren said: “We know you can’t win anything with a bad defence. That’s one thing we’re trying to address.”
Back then, there was a degree of optimism on Tyneside that the club could challenge higher up the table, and even win a cup, under McClaren.
Six months after McClaren gave that response, that optimism has long gone, but the defensive problems that he promised to “address” remain unaddressed.
Admittedly, injuries haven’t helped, especially at left-back, but United seem incapable of defending as a team, and the form of right-back Daryl Janmaat has deteriorated alarmingly.
McClaren has chopped and changed formations – he has used a five-man defence with wing-backs at times this season – but the team is still leaking far too many goals.
The calf injury that will keep Coloccini out for four weeks has added to McClaren’s defensive headache.
The vision in pre-season was for a high-pressing team which could defend from the front.
Newcastle’s defence, however, has all too often been left far too exposed.
Ayoze Perez isn’t just a match-winner, he’s arguably the best finisher at Newcastle along with Georginio Wijnaldum.
So why didn’t we see him against Chelsea or West Bromwich Albion?
Perez – who signed a new long-term deal at the club last month – didn’t even make it off the bench in either game.
Bizarrely, McClaren even brought on loanee Seydou Doumbia – who hadn’t kicked a ball in anger for two months and looked well short of fitness in a run-out for the Under-21s – ahead of him at Stamford Bridge.
Doumbia, maybe not surprisingly, barely had a kick.
Surely Perez would be have troubled Chelsea more with his pace?
United, all too often plodding and pedestrian up front, need his energy, enthusiasm and eye for goal.
McClaren needs to find a formation that accommodates Perez – and quickly.
Finally, there’s Georginio Wijnaldum.
Without his nine goals, Newcastle would be propping up the league.
But why can Wijnaldum be as influential away from home as he is at St James’s Park?
All nine of Wijnaldum’s goals have come on home turf, and the midfielder was hauled off at the break against Chelsea.
Wijnaldum, understandably, didn’t seem too happy about his half-time withdrawal when he left Stamford Bridge.
Other players, notably Fabricio Coloccini and Moussa Sissoko, hadn’t fared any better.
But while those two players didn’t feature against Lillestrom, the Dutch star was again in the starting line-up and responded with the opening goal after just three minutes.
Yes, a goal away from Tyneside!
Four of Newcastle’s next six games are away from St James’s Park.
And McClaren must quickly find a cure for Wijnaldum’s travel sickness.