Has a signing made as strong an impact, and as quickly, as Moussa Sissoko has at Newcastle? The French midfielder set up Papiss Cisse for an excellent goal on his debut in a win at Aston Villa, but it was his home debut, four days later, against Chelsea, when Sissoko really impressed.
Playing as the number ten in a much more forward position than he is used to in France, Sissoko used his pace and power to great effect, at one stage outrunning Ashley Cole despite giving the Englishman a two-yard head start. And he scored two goals to boot, the second a pile-driver from outside the area that secured a last-minute 3-2 win. No wonder the Newcastle fans are asking, “Demba Who?” following the sale of their top scorer last month.
Newcastle coach Alan Pardew, now nicknamed ‘Depardew’, after French actor Gerard Depardieu, has handled the ten Frenchmen in his squad very cleverly. There were never more than four ‘Frenchies’ on the field against Chelsea at any one time (subs Sylvain Marveaux and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa came on for Yoann Gouffran and Sissoko) and it was clear that Newcastle were defending with Argentines (Fabrizio Coloccini and Jonas Gutierrez) and Englishmen (Steven Taylor and James Perch) and relying on the French to provide to technical ability to break down opponents.
“Sissoko brings us energy and power,” said Pardew. “When he arrived, I told him he needed to score more. Here, the game is more open, faster, less compact than in France. I had no doubt he would adapt quickly.” Newcastle had been tracking him for 18 months, and chief scout Graham Carr watched 20 games in Ligue 1 in January alone.
“The coach put me behind Papiss to try to support him up front, and to strengthen the midfield when we did not have the ball. This suits my game,” said Sissoko. It’s no coincidence that Yohan Cabaye’s return to form has coincided with Sissoko’s arrival. “The new Frenchies [who have been signed] have a good tactical understanding and that makes a difference,” said Cabaye. “They are also intelligent and understand what the coach wants. They have brought energy and mental freshness to the team.”
Peter Beardsley, a former Newcastle hero who is now head of the youth system, checking on players from seven to 20, says that Cabaye was the man behind the club’s love of all things French. “He was the trigger,” said Beardsley. “He is a great guy on a human level, and from the beginning he has always told us what he’s been doing. He keeps an eye on the other guys, and he is very low maintenance. We don’t worry that he will be dragging others off into the pub. And importantly, he inspires others too: my wife thinks I am in love with him!”
Sissoko has also made a difference: two games, one assist and two goals: compared to one assist and one goal in his last 19 at Toulouse. No wonder Beardsley says Newcastle have been a different club since Sissoko arrived.
In France, there is a habit to call every young player, ‘the new Someone’. Samir Nasri was the new Zidane, Yoann Gouffran was once the new Thierry Henry, and Sissoko was described as the new Mahamadou Diarra (ex-Lyon and Real Madrid powerhouse, now at Lyon).
“He’s a guy who loves spaces, he’s capable of repeated efforts and moving forward and getting into good positions when he doesn’t have the ball,” said Eric Mombaerts, France’s former Under-21 coach, who first picked Sissoko in September 2008. “It’s something that hurts the opponents physically, and with his athletic build and his power, there are not many players capable of doing what he can do. He is a lot less defensive than Diarra, he’s much more of an explosive player moving forward and he runs three times as much. With his ability on the break, he reminds me more of a Michael Essien.”
Meanwhile the French revolution at Newcastle continues. The locals have renamed ‘The Strawberry’, the pub closest to the stadium, ‘La Fraise’, and even in France, the team is now called Neuf-Chateau. Buying in bulk from France worked for Arsenal 16 years ago, when Arsene Wenger first arrived. Now it seems to be working again for Newcastle. “They are our model,” admitted Carr. “They signed players who went on to become world-class. We are not there yet but that’s what we’re working towards.”