As resurgent first-half performance gave way to predictable second-half calamity, a realization slapped me in the face: To survive this season with its Premier League status still intact, Newcastle United might have to fire manager Alan Pardew.
I didn't arrive at this conclusion based on Pardew's choice of formation, tactics or substitutions during Saturday's inexcusable 2-1 home defeat to lowly Reading. Pardew is culpable for the negative effects of his decisions to remove Sylvain Marveaux and Yohan Cabaye in the second half, although there was sound reasoning behind each move when analyzed in isolation. The team has defended poorly for most of the season, so bringing James Perch on for Marveaux should have helped shore up the back while allowing Cabaye to push further forward in the midfield. Unfortunately, Cabaye needed to come off shortly thereafter to avoid aggravating his costly groin injury, thus making the Marveaux substitution ridiculous.
And it's not as if Pardew told the team at halftime to stop creating scoring chances and controlling possession. What happened in the second half is simply what often happens to teams in the midst of losing streaks. Maintaining possession for long stretches and pushing forward to create chances requires a certain level of confidence.
But that's really the point, isn't it? Newcastle appears to be firmly stuck in a mental rut and lacks the on-field leadership to haul itself out. This is a team badly in need of an injection of life. Perhaps the return of Hatem Ben Arfa will do just that, although that might not come until mid-February. Or several badly-needed new additions to the squad. For the first time, though, I'm not convinced either will be enough.
I could easily be classified as a Pardew apologist; I'm of the belief that criticism of his formations, tactics and lineups has been overstated this season, given the small, injury-riddled squad at his disposal. Firing him at this stage would be admittedly unfair — not to mention, the managerial alternatives don't figure to be too inspiring (then again, were they when Pardew was hired?) — considering that his bosses are just now purchasing the necessary reinforcements and several of his key performers are finally returning to the lineup. Pardew did a superb job in difficult circumstances last season, which should buy him a down season this time around.
Unfortunately this is slowly morphing from "down season" to "outright disaster." Relegation is now a very real possibility, and after two wins in 14 Premier League matches — and three in 18 — it should be. Over the past 10 seasons, the average points required to guarantee safety has been 36.5. If we assume Newcastle would be safe with 37 points — that's been enough in seven of the past 10 seasons — then United needs 16 from its remaining 15 matches.
Doable? Sure. But only if Newcastle manages to remember how to grind out results, while at the same time coping with the ever-increasing pressure of a relegation battle.
Sadly, I'm not sure this team, in its present form, with its present leadership, is up to the task.