In a season of desperate lows and infrequent highs, Sunday was almost a new nadir for Newcastle. Aleksandar Mitrovic’s late equaliser avoided a seventh successive derby loss against Sunderland, but there was little cause for long-term celebration. The gap to Norwich is now three points. Lose at Carrow Road next weekend and relegation will be close; you can’t say they don’t deserve it.
Ask any Newcastle supporter who they blame most for Newcastle’s atrocious season, and the names of Mike Ashley, Lee Charnley and Steve McClaren will probably take the podium positions. They are the unholy trinity of St James’ Park, or perhaps the three Japanese monkeys; see no progress, hear no progress, speak no progress.
Yet ask those same supporters for the identity of one player who personifies this desperate decline, and one name will crop up far more than most, perhaps spat out at you given the bile over his under-performance and perceived attitude. Moussa Sissoko has slumped into a semi-permanent footballing coma.
Against Sunderland, Sissoko was again poor. Playing as a wide midfielder on the left, he completed three passes in Sunderland’s half before the break. He lost possession on 13 occasions in the first half, six more times than any other Newcastle player. The ultimate indictment for Sissoko’s lack of attacking threat came in the second half, when he was chose as the stand-in left-back when Jack Colback’s ill-discipline necessitated his substitution. Sissoko’s passing accuracy of 63% was lower than any other Newcastle player.
As with many others at Newcastle, raw talent is not the problem for Sissoko. He was again named in Didier Deschamps’ latest France squad, and has 34 caps by the age of 26. That’s seven fewer than Blaise Matuidi and ten fewer than Yohan Cabaye at four and two years older respectively, by way of comparison. He played in four of France’s five games at the 2014 World Cup.
Even this stark inability to reach potential might be forgiven, were it not for Sissoko’s regular public statements of ambition. The last of these came in December and January, when the midfielder spoke of “calmly waiting” for the Champions League. “I am not thinking about leaving Newcastle,” he said weeks later. “They will not let me go.” On current form, the offers won’t come flooding in.
Were this an isolated occurrence, supporters in the Gallowgate would be far more patient. The truth is that Sissoko has spent most of the last year lumbering, offering little but a mere presence. He has started 29 of Newcastle’s 30 league games this season, substituted only five times. There has been no punishment for his wanton lack of contribution.
Two of those substitutions have come in Sissoko’s last three games, both times accompanied by boos from Newcastle supporters fed up with being let down by expensive, well-paid players. “Champions League, you’re having a laugh,” St James’ Park chanted against Bournemouth as Sissoko was withdrawn. The fans have given up.
“When you look at the squad we are a good team,” said Sissoko in midweek. “I believe in my team-mates, manager, everyone and we are a good team. We will stay in the Premier League. We have to work hard every game and start to win on Sunday. Every derby is a big game, we need to win. It will be crucial for us.”
That quote is indicative of Newcastle’s season as a whole, regular insistences from key players that an improvement is on the way. Yet actions speak louder than words, and Newcastle have taken eight league points since Christmas.
Mike Ashley may be suffocating Newcastle, the cloud of smog that hangs over the ground, but the players must share that blame. Too many have offered too little for too long. Those paying their money every week are growing weary of waiting.
Mitrovic’s goal does indeed offer Newcastle a stay of execution, but drawing at home to a relegation rival is no cause for wild jubilation. Not when one step forward has so often been followed by two more back.