When Cheik Tiote made his Newcastle debut against Everton in September 2010, few in the Goodison Park away end knew much about him. He was from the Ivory Coast, he was defensively minded, and he looked like he could crush a Coke can with a stare. That’s not quite enough to justify a player’s inclusion in a side, but over the course of 90 minutes, the travelling Newcastle fans witnessed the kind of display that became synonymous with Tiote’s debut season in English football.
Incredibly strong, his bullish frame was matched with a high level of composure that allowed him to calmly distribute the ball when under pressure. His ability to neutralise attacks and dominate midfield was head-turning for a man with a mere £3.5m price tag.
Add that to his frighteningly good pass completion ratio – on his debut, he misplaced just two passes out of 47 – and it appeared Newcastle had made a shrewd investment. Even in the intense atmosphere of the Tyne-Wear derby a month later, he was able to perform, with a pass completion rate of 90%.
Sadly, that rate stands in stark contrast to his more recent performances against Sunderland, culminating in his sending-off at the Stadium of Light last month. So what’s changed for Tiote?
During Sunday’s defeat at Southampton, Tiote was again key to the way Newcastle played. He attempted 67 passes – for comparison, no other player on either side tried more than 40 except Saints' Jack Cork (42) – and completed 52 (again, Cork was his nearest challenger with 30).
That's a respectable 78% completion rate, which doesn't seem too bad, but it's below the level Magpies fans became accustomed to when their side was in top-six form last term. Why?
The answer starts to come when we check the distances of Tiote's passes, using the Stats Zone feature that discerns between long and short passes (the split being at roughly 20 yards). Of his 53 short passes against Southampton, 48 found their mark – above 90% accuracy. But he only reached his man with 4 of his 14 long passes – 29% accurate, but also regularly turning over possession to the opposition.
Furthermore, of the 18 passes that ended in the attacking third, only 8 reached their man. Indeed, 47 of Tiote's 67 passes at Southampton were classed as forward rather than square or backward, but only 32 of those 47 forward passes (68%) were completed.
By comparison, in that debut at Goodison only one of his 47 passes qualified as long – and that reached its mark. And of the 47, only 18 were forward passes, but none were particularly vertical – and, not uncoincidentally, 17 of the 18 were completed.
Without the dashing Yohan Cabaye alongside him, Tiote is forced to take on more attacking responsibility, but it has come at considerable cost. Even on the rare occasion this season the two have lined up together – such as in the opening day's 2-1 home win against Tottenham Hotspur – we still see this worrying development to Tiote’s game.
Again, Tiote topped the charts for passes attempted (81) and completed (67), but his 83% completion rate was dragged down because of his desire to play the killer ball, with 4 out of 6 long balls and just under half of his final-third passes resulting in giveaways.
Instead of Tiote successfully evolving as he adapts to the league, it seems the increased responsibility – be it self-imposed or at the request of Alan Pardew – has in fact reduced the midfielder into a less influential player, his simplicity and ball retention having been among his greatest assets.
But fear not, Newcastle fans: there is still hope. Examining the club’s Europa League campaign invokes memories of early Tiote. During their opening group game against Bordeaux, Tiote recorded an 89% completion rate, completing 65 of his 73 passes.
As the screenshare shows, the Ivorian produced a brilliant display in the realms often associated with a defensive midfielder, with only 7 of his passes ending in the attacking third (5 completed) and 9 long passes (6 completed) – and Newcastle won 3-0.
That's not to say Tiote has to pass it sideways or backwards. Of his 73 passes against Bordeaux, 41 were forward (and 38 of those completed). He followed that up with an astonishingly tidy display in the next home tie against Club Brugge, completing 92 of 107 passes (86%) – and 73 of those were forward (61 completed).
With Newcastle currently in dire form and Cabaye out until January with a groin injury, many may expect Tiote to fill the void left by the former Lille man – but that’s exactly what Alan Pardew should avoid. Instead, they need to get back to basics, starting with their midfield metronome. Newcastle have the Premier League's highest percentage of long balls this season (17%), and it isn't working.
Pardew needs to make sure Tiote keeps it simple, going sideways if necessary rather than seeking the Hollywood balls, and in doing so help Newcastle return to a more simple passing game. If the team need forward thrust and invention, it can be entrusted to Hatem Ben Arfa and Jonas Guttierez, or perhaps Sylvain Marveaux; either that, or face needlessly giving the ball away again and again.
Stats Zone is a free-download app from FourFourTwo and Opta, updated LIVE in-play. The Europa League Stats Zone is brought to you in association with Western Union's PASS scheme, which turns every completed Europa League pass into a day's education for young people around the world.
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