Novice Newcastle struggling

by John Davidson on Jan 05, 2013

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Despite a blistering start the Newcastle Jets are struggling and their season is on the line.

An Emile Heskey-inspired Jets fired out of the blocks early in 2012-2013, registering four wins in the first six rounds. A poor season-opening 2-0 loss at home to Adelaide became a distant memory after Newcastle went on a three-game winning streak. They then unluckily went down 3-2 away to Perth, but bounced back with a 2-1 win over the Wanderers at Parramatta Stadium. In that period their new marquee signing from the UK bagged five goals in six games. Heskey’s potency as a striker was no longer the source of a punchline.

Heading into round seven the Jets had a comfortable position on the table and the signs were good. Since then the Hunter outfit has claimed just four points from a possible 24. That’s just one victory and one draw from the past eight matches. It makes for dire reading.

So where has it all gone wrong for Gary van Egmond’s young side?

The fact is that their impressive start to the season was a bit of false dawn. A number of factors have conspired to fashion Newcastle to its current position of eighth on the ladder, with 16 points, just three points ahead of bottom-placed Sydney FC. Injuries have played their part, but that is a problem that every A-League club can lay claim too.

So has the constant chopping and changing of the line-up, something that van Egmond must be accountable for. Rarely have the Jets fielded the same XI week-in-week out when possible. Meanwhile a number of Newcastle’s new recruits have failed to live up to their billing. Josh Mitchell was brought over from Perth and has struggled. Dominic Ritter arrived from Switzerland but has been inconsistent. Brazilian Bernardo Ribeiro and former Gold Coast tyro James Brown have been unable to stake strong claims on the number 10 jersey.

It has not, of course, been all bad. Despite a broken cheekbone, goalkeeper Mark Birighitti has been a standout. Craig Goodwin has gone to another level this season and is surely a future Socceroo. James Virgili is developing nicely and has the pace to trouble defenders. Ruben Zadkovich has stepped up and taken the captain’s armband with aplomb. And big Heskey has not only brought in the crowds at Hunter Stadium but snagged seven goals – one in every two games he has played.

But this has not been enough. van Egmond’s rookie A-League side has lacked consistency and, crucially, quality, too often this season. Their lack of experienced players seems to have played a role. They have rarely controlled games and have always looked vulnerable at the back. Using three different goalkeepers and many different central defender combinations over the 14 rounds will do that to you. Partnerships take time to build.

The questions are mounting for ‘Dutchy’ and there are just 13 rounds to find some answers. He needs to make a decision on Michael Bridges – play him or punt him. He needs to find a new home for the likes of Tiago, who has largely been ineffective. He needs to get the best out of Brown, who has huge potential but is struggling, and he needs to settle and stick with his best XI when he can. He needs to find regular spots for Virgili and Goodwin, two of his best young charges, and he needs to get his side to find a style that gets the best out of Heskey all, not just, some of the time. Playing direct and high always to the former England forward may have reaped awards early on in the season but it is failing now. Other teams have cottoned on to this long ball tactic. There must be a plan B.

The Jets, one of the youngest squads in the A-League, can still make the semi-finals. After a run of one win in the past eight matches, that is a miracle in itself. It demonstrates the closeness of the ten-team competition and the fact that any club can beat any other on their day. Newcastle needs to be empowered by this notion and inject some life into their 2012-2013 season before it is too late.