Because of Demba Ba's exit and Loïc Rémy's aborted entrance, Newcastle's striker search has dominated the January window. But arguably the club's greater need is at center back. The brief flurry of concern over Fabricio Coloccini's future left fans pondering a dismal future with Mike Williamson as the number one option in the back line. Though Steven Taylor is due back from injury any day now, he's only made 30 league starts once in his career - and that was five years ago.
However, if gossip is to be trusted, Newcastle scouts are indeed watching for defenders in France, and the most commonly linked player has been Nicolas Isimat-Mirin of Valenciennes. A French under-21 international, Isimat-Mirin is one of Les Bleus' top young prospects. So when Valenciennes made a relatively rare appearance on American TV Sunday, playing Nice, it seemed worth watching to see how the 21-year-old in action. It wasn't a particularly encouraging sight.
First, the good: in a rapid-fire sequence around the 10-minute mark, Isimat-Mirin showed why Graham Carr has been giving him a look. He demonstrated his strength in preventing a Nice player from turning and shooting from close range, then flashed his pace and reading of the game by nipping in to clear what looked to be a sharp through ball. After that, it was basically all downhill.
At the stroke of halftime, Isimat-Mirin was late in reacting to the run of Nice striker Dario Cvitanich, then backed off and let him rip a shot into the corner from the edge of the box. Then, with his team on the back foot early in the second half, he botched a clearance after a free kick, tapping the ball directly to grateful Nice defender Renato Civelli for an easy goal.
Throughout the match, he looked awkward on the ball, seemed to subscribe to the "anywhere will do" school of passing from the back, and shanked a couple balls entirely - including one that the announcer on beIN Sport could only describe as "interesting distribution."
Other than the individual errors, the disconcerting thing was how much Isimat-Mirin seemed to be channeling Williamson, looking hesitant in the midst of a Valenciennes team that appeared bereft of ideas offensively. Obviously, it was just a one-match sample. But there certainly wasn't anything about his performance that indicated he'd be comfortable jumping into a Newcastle team fighting relegation.
It's not clear whether Newcastle has the option between Isimat-Mirin and last year's primary target at center back, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa. Given the latter's pedigree of having captained the Ligue 1 champions, and his ability to spearhead the attack the way Coloccini often does, I'd take him in a heartbeat over a 21-year-old still finding his professional legs.
Also in action for Valenciennes was another reported Newcastle target, left back Gaëtan Bong. His qualities were more flashy and obvious than those of Isimat-Mirin, as he raced down the flank much like a left-footed Davide Santon. But like Isimat-Mirin, Bong was at fault for two Nice goals in the 5-0 defeat. Of course, the presence of Santon and Mathieu Debuchy makes one wonder how much effort the club would truly exert to bring in another fullback. Clearly, Newcastle has far more desperate needs elsewhere.