We finally got the 4-5-1 formation we've been clamoring for from Alan Pardew. It didn't matter. It wouldn't have mattered what formation Pardew drew up for his Newcastle United charges against Liverpool on Friday.
Newcastle's wide players were simply outclassed by their Liverpool counterparts in the 3-1 defeat, which extended United's losing streak at Anfield to seven.
Craig Bellamy and Stewart Downing dominated Danny Simpson and Ryan Taylor. On the flip side, Jonas Gutierrez and Gabriel Obertan did little to trouble Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique. It was the clear difference in a match that saw the teams cancel each other out in the center of the midfield.
Pardew is already being ripped on Twitter for opting to start youngster Haris Vuckic as an attacking midfielder rather than Monday's goalscoring hero, Hatem Ben Arfa. But that decision had very little effect on the game. Vuckic may not have made much of an impact, but he also didn't see enough of the ball to realistically be able to significantly influence proceedings. Yohan Cabaye, who got away with a poor challenge on Jay Spearing, and Cheick Tiote weren't at their best and were held to a stalemate in their matchup with Spearing and Charlie Adam in the center of the midfield.
That allowed Liverpool's overwhelming advantage on the flanks to be decisive. Liverpool didn't need to bother with trying to build through the crowded center of the midfield. It could simply funnel the ball to either Downing or Bellamy and let them go to work against Newcastle's overmatched fullbacks. Davide Santon's introduction in place of Taylor improved the situation on Newcastle's left flank, but that only seemed to encourage Liverpool to attack Simpson even more.
By contrast, when Newcastle tried to utilize Gutierrez and Obertan, they were able to make little headway against Johnson and Enrique. Gutierrez and Obertan both covered plenty of ground, repeatedly tracking back and drifting inside at times to get on the ball. But they failed to provide any incisiveness going forward - and it's not the first time this season that's been the case.
It's worth reminding ourselves that Newcastle still sits seventh in the Premier League table as we enter 2012, a fairly remarkable achievement. There's still a legitimate chance of qualifying for the Europa League. Newcastle has a terrible record at Anfield over the years and Liverpool has spent big money in the last two transfer windows, so this defeat wasn't at all unexpected.
But it was the most glaring example to date that if Newcastle wishes to continue to progress, improvement on the flanks - both in defense and attack - is required.