When Leon Best limped off against Aston Villa last month I very much doubt any Newcastle supporter batted an eyelid as he exited St James’ Park with new number nine Papiss Cisse inbound. Since moving to Tyneside just over two years ago the 25-year-old has had his fair share of sceptics with a lion share of criticism coming from Geordies perched on their seats inside St James’ Park. It’s a fan base that has thrived upon worshipping a plethora of prolific frontmen down the years. The likes of Peter Beardsley, Andy Cole, Les Ferdinand and Alan Shearer have set the standard that all strikers plying their trade with the Magpies have to reach to be considered a success. Scoring goals is the only way into the Toon Army’s hearts, which is something Best hasn’t done on a consistent basis since joining from Coventry. His erratic early form caused fans to construct an early judgement that has proved to be immovable. It’s an inability to regularly get his name on the score sheet combined with a irritating tendency to be caught offside that compels supporters to voice their displeasure at him on a frequent basis.
However, there is more to Best than meets the eye and his absence during 12 games this season has proved damaging to Newcastle’s attacking strategy. His displays this season in tandem with top scorer Demba Ba have changed the perceptions of supporters who had written the Republic of Ireland international off as a player incapable of plying his trade in the Premier League. A barren 13 game run in the Championship and a lengthy absence at the start of last season seemed to indicate that Best had no future on Tyneside. Fortunately for him the record breaking sale of Andy Carroll granted him a stay of execution. He repaid Alan Pardew’s faith with six goals in 10 games during the second half of the campaign including a hat trick against West Ham on his maiden top flight start for the club.
Starting the current season as first choice in Pardew’s striking duo he has become an instrumental figure for Magpies albeit whilst playing in the shadow of Ba. The Senegalese hit man has been widely commended for his prolific exploits in front of goal unlike Best who hasn’t received the acclaim he deserves. Strikers live or die by their goal records and unfortunately for the former Coventry man his paltry return of four has worked against him. In spite of his lack of goals he’s made pivotal contributions that have remained unnoticed by supporters. I will say that in the three games he’s scored in, Best singlehandedly won Newcastle seven points scoring winners against Fulham and QPR whilst grabbing the equaliser in the away fixture against Villa.
His effectiveness up front with Ba is clear for all to see. In the 12 games they’ve started up front together the ex-West Ham striker has struck 11 goals. In fact Newcastle have benefited from their productive partnership winning eight and drawing four when they’ve been paired up front – a return of 27 points from a possible 36. It’s a completely different picture when Ba has been forced to operate without his wingman – finding the net just five times in 13 matches. In fact the Magpies have amassed 31 points from the 15 games Best has played from the start compared to the meagre sum of 12 points from the 12 games he’s been absent.
It certainly does start to paint a picture. In the five games he’s missed since mid-February Newcastle have won just once and have suffered in his absence. But statistics tell only half of the story. January signing Cisse has stepped into the fold and bagged a few goals but there have been games, most notably against Arsenal, Sunderland and Wolves, where Best’s boundless work rate and aerial strength were required. His ethic and endeavour to close down defenders, work the channels and unselfishly run himself into the ground takes the load off Ba, allowing him to concentrate on scoring goals. His power in the air is also another quality he possesses, being able to time his jump and flick the ball on or hold it up to relieve the pressure on the midfield and defence. It’s an altruistic approach that should have endeared him to the St James’ faithful and whilst they have warmed slightly I doubt there will be much sadness if he departed for pastures new this summer. Personally I think he’d provide a superb option should Ba or Cisse fall victim to injury or a drop in form.
Yes he does frustrate when it comes to converting gilt edged chances or mastering the offside trap but there is no doubting that he’s played an important role for the club this season.
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