If any player best epitomized Newcastle's run in the first half of last season, it was Jonás Gutiérrez. Unlike the stylish attacking team we saw last spring, the 11-match unbeaten run that started the year featured a lot of ugly nail-biters and very little flair. Jonás slotted in wherever asked, be it left wing, left back, attacking or defensive midfield roles, and did so relatively effectively.
Sure, he could only score against the league's worst team, and his crosses usually elicited a derisive "he really should be doing better with that" from announcers. But it was hard to deny how hard he worked, or how much pressure he was able to relieve by drawing fouls and dribbling out of danger.
And when Newcastle piled up loss after loss this fall, Jonás again seemed a perfect symbol of the club's travails. His flaws mirrored a team-wide lack of creativity. While there was no doubting his, or the team's, effort every week, that effort was mostly channeled in unproductive and ineffective ways. Alan Pardew singled him out as an underperformer in December, yet he looked as poor as ever after returning from injury.
On Saturday, we remembered why we loved Gutiérrez so much. His tear-filled exultation after his headed goal released months of frustration supporters had with him, as well as the disappointment he'd had with his own play. It wasn't just the goal, though. Jonás put together a performance against Chelsea that, while not making anyone forget about Hatem Ben Arfa, was as effective as he'd been in months.
But the strange thing about comparing the Jonás of 2012-13 to the one of 2011-12 is how little difference there actually is by the numbers. Let's have a look:
Stats are certainly not everything, and Jonás has looked much worse to my eye as well. Whether through injury, age, or fatigue, he appears to have lost a step, which may be the cause of his lower dribble rate. But everywhere else, the numbers show that he's essentially the same player that he was a year ago.
What fans have seen from Jonás this year is a classic case of how a decent player can look very different depending on the performance of the club. Mistakes stand out more when they turn into goals, and poor crosses get erased from memory when Newcastle is leading rather than chasing a match. Win, and his obvious effort and passion is applauded. Lose, and he's a clogger who can't produce on the offensive end when the club desperately needs goals.
There's no surer sign of how far Newcastle has progressed in building the roster than seeing how Gutiérrez has slipped down the pecking order. When coming up from the Championship, he was an automatic starter. Now, he's a serviceable player in a sea of excellent ones, and will likely be dropped to the bench in favor of Ben Arfa, or even Sylvain Marveaux. Instead of being relied on for creativity he has never really possessed, Jonás can do what he does best - add energy in short bursts to close out matches. It's up to the rest of the squad to get Newcastle the lead for him to protect.