Now that Ba has gone we’ve finally settled into a formation that suits the majority of our players, and with few notable exceptions, fully fit our strongest XI pretty much picks itself:
Debuchy Saylor Colo Santon
Ben Arfa Sissoko ??????
There is new competition at CB, with the talented Yanga-Mbiwa brought in in January, but with the importance of a good partnership between your defenders, the understanding between Colo and Saylor will perhaps keep him out until one inevitably gets injured. There is also the argument for Anita over Tiote at least against weaker teams, where his passing skill would be more beneficial than Tiote’s destructive role especially with Tiote’s poor form. However, these are positions that we are currently well off in and with Debuchy coming in at RB I’d argue that the left wing is now the weak link in our best XI, and so far this season no-one has performed consistently well out on the left to cement their place in the team.
For a long time now Jonas Gutierrez has been Pardew’s go-to player for the position, but he’s never been particularly adept at the main role of a LW; getting goals and assists, and to add to that his attacking attributes have been on the decline this season. Yes he got a goal against Chelsea but that was his first good game of the season, and he was played out on the right. He is regularly praised for his defensive ability and workrate, but the former is primarily the job of the defensive players on the pitch and the latter is not much good without an end product. I feel that his time as a first team regular is up but he will still be useful in certain games; against a particularly strong team, as a sub if we’re looking to shut up shop or if one of our flanks are being particularly troubled by an opposition winger/fullback.
Past him there is new signing Yoann Gouffran, a versatile player who can play up front, as a second striker, or on either wing as he has shown in the last two games. Earlier in his career he was deployed out on the wing with a somewhat unspectacular record, but has more recently played up front as a lone striker scoring 8 in 20 in Ligue 1 this season in a struggling side, with this combination of experience he should certainly offer more of a goal threat, something which we haven’t had from the left in a long time. I’m not entirely sure where Pardew was intending on playing him when he signed him, he mentioned that he wants someone on the bench that can come on at around 70mins and make an impact, maybe that was his plan for Gouffran? However if he manages to get a run of games under his belt performing as well as he did against Chelsea, he might just see more playing time on the left than originally intended.
If he can keep himself off the injury table for long enough Sylvain Marveaux is another option. Missing most of last season with a long term groin injury he’s returned to the 1st team sporadically due to injuries to others, impressing as the central attacking midfielder in our 4231 recently. The close control, dribbling and short passing skills he exhibited in those games would translate well to any position across attacking midfield but with him unlikely to displace Sissoko or Ben Arfa in the long term, his best chance for a place in the starting lineup is certainly on the left. Unfortunately just as he was putting an impressive string of performances he was set back with another injury before the Aston Villa game, with Pardew later indicating that Marveaux was set to start that game. It was stated well before the match that Sissoko would be playing centrally, which suggests that Marveaux would have been deployed out wide, though which wing it was on (ahead of either Jonas or Gouffran) wasn’t mentioned. If he’s unlucky it be may be some time before he has a similar chance at the 1st XI, but he would definitely be an excellent option as a substitute. Perhaps he can force the issue with a few good performances from the bench.
Finally, somewhat of a scapegoat for the fans; Gabriel Obertan, much maligned and sometimes rightly so, however the fans are often on his back before he’s kicked a ball which is not helpful for a confidence player. After a largely ineffectual first season, starting on the right hand side of a 442 more often than anyone would have liked, he was eventually benched due to Ben Arfa’s return to fitness. Some major criticisms of his play being that he was slow to release the ball from the flanks, trying to cut inside to play it short rather than getting the early cross in and when he did get a cross in they were often poor. However, these traits are more beneficial for him on the left of a formation suited to shorter passing, and cutting in onto his favoured foot he has been much more productive; with 3 assists and a goal in 5 games in the position this season, a good return for any player. An unlikely candidate yes, but not as useless as his critics would have you believe. With a bit of work on his shooting he could be an effective player for us, at the very least he’s a viable option to have there in reserve.
Between now and the end of the season, can one of these players stake their claim as the stand out candidate on the left side of our attack, or will the LW remain an obvious target for improvement in the eyes of the fans once the summer transfer window swings open in the summer?