In keeping with a Premier League season that has enthralled and entertained like no other, perhaps it is only natural that in a mirror image of the fanfare surrounding the incredible story that has unfolded at the top of the table, events at the bottom have equally captured the imagination.
Aston Villa, a proud club steeped in tradition and pedigree, were already relegated weeks ago after a dire season, woefully underperforming on and off the pitch and ultimately failing to build on the third worst Premier League points tally of all time.
Above them, Norwich City rue a season of unlucky results, poor refereeing decisions and a simple lack of quality in the final third that finally denied such a finely supported club the opportunity to solidify their top flight status for another year.
And until the penultimate round of Premier League fixtures, it seemed Sunderland were also facing their annual relegation battle, a familiar trend after some astute managerial changes in recent years has desperately postponed their surely inevitable drop into the Championship.
But after a thrilling 3-2 victory over Chelsea followed by a thumping win over Everton, the Black Cats clawed their way out of trouble under the excellent management of Sam Allardyce.
That left the Premier League enigma that is Newcastle United to make up the final piece of a captivating relegation jig saw, with an inability to get a result against Aston Villa sealing their fate.
While Sunderland looked to continue with their successful formula that has served them so well to survive the drop in the last few seasons by replacing Dick Advocaat, ironically the hero who came in similar circumstances last campaign to save the club, with Premier League stalwart Sam Allardyce, Newcastle took a different approach.
They opted to replace much maligned caretaker manager John Carver with the highly controversial appointment of Englishman Steve McClaren in the summer. By all accounts a genuinely gifted coach on the training field, with success to his name at Middlesborough and FC Twente, the former England Manager however has never truly convinced those in the game of his managerial capabilities.
With just 24 points from his 28 games an all-time low for the North East side, his time at Newcastle inevitably came to the end.
And in a highly surprising and unexpected turn of events perfectly in keeping with this tumultuous season, former Real Madrid and Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez swept into St James’ Park on the 11th March with one and only one objective – perform a miracle and somehow haul this sleeping giant of a club out of their current strife to avoid a second relegation in seven years.
But with a solitary draw and three defeats from the Spaniard’s first four games in charge, it seemed the task was all but impossible. However, a subsequent nine points in the proceeding five games managed to give the Magpies a slither of hope in an otherwise retched season, before ultimately falling short, despite a romping 5-1 win over Tottenham on the season’s final day.
But while this recent upturn in form was impressive in itself under Benitez, what is even more pleasing on the eye is the improvement shown by his team and his players.
Those who all too often looked disinterested and unwilling under his predecessor McClaren appeared sharp, focused and displaying all the talent that saw the Magpies set with a pre-season objective of a top eight finish coupled with silverware in the final fight against relegation. And in a team that belatedly began to flourish just after the right time, nowhere is this startling transformation more apparent than with French powerhouse Moussa Sissoko.
A formidable presence with pace, strength and the ability to carry the ball at speed, the former Toulouse man is a sight to behold when in full flight, powerfully surging forward from his midfield position. When fully fit, confident, and more importantly in the correct frame of mind, Sissoko is a force of nature and nigh on impossible to keep at bay.
The Frenchman’s greatest attribute however is perhaps his versatility, as he patrols midfield in a myriad of positions. Whether on the right flank, a deeper lying defensive position, as a midfield destroyer or even operating on the left side of midfield as he has during Benitez’s brief tenure so far, such a player surely has the potential to dominate the opposition and prove himself an indispensible asset to his team.
Playing in the correct frame of mind however is arguably precisely where the Frenchman’s recent struggles have originated, where we also see some of the Frenchman’s less exultant virtues come to the fore, resulting in a player seemingly disinterested, unmotivated and unable to tap into such glorious potential.
The Frenchman’s ability is not in question, but when motivation is seemingly such a glaring chink in the armor of such an eclectic and versatile player, one can understand why frequent interviews discussing his dream to experience the Champions’ League seem ill-timed at best, and an obvious sense of disloyalty to his current employers at worst.
In an era where the financial rewards of the game continue to rise exponentially to astonishing new levels, it is easy to forget that on a fundamentally human level, it is natural for a player to rightly feel injustice at being denied the chance to play at a level their talent deserves.
But when such an upwardly mobile and talented individual seemingly loses interest at such a fine club as Newcastle, albeit an increasingly underperforming one, then one must question any illusions of grandeur and any sense of deserving more.
And while Sissoko has enjoyed something of a renaissance under Rafa Benitez, it is not hard to understand why the Frenchman has had to belatedly step up his game, not only for his club, but also for his country with the impending European Champions only a few short months away.
So one must ask, why should a player with so many qualities struggle so badly with consistency and motivation, and why must it take a manager with the glittering CV and pedigree of Rafa Benitez to draw out this dormant talent?
Firstly, it must be noted that plying his trade in a team battling relegation for a second successive season will never help a player of Sissoko’s pedigree to blossom. But one could argue that a player of such obvious ability should and could perform to a much higher standard on a much more frequent basis, and in doing so should have improved his team’s fortunes on and off the pitch and eliminate the threat of relegation in a mutually beneficial relationship.
Indeed, if one were being cynical, then improved performances would also entice potential new suitors and make the Frenchman’s Champions League dream all the more palpable. So what was stopping Sissoko?
To begin with, it could be easy to blame domestic circumstances. After finishing in a magnificent 5th place under Alan Pardew in the 2011/12 season, Newcastle have unfortunately been in a downward trajectory ever since, struggling against relegation for the past two campaigns, only surviving with a final day victory against West Ham last season. And with their worsening performances have come a succession of poor managerial appointments in John Carver and Steve McClaren.
And unsurprisingly, such uncertainty has affected the Magpie’s playing squad, in particular those with an already fragile confidence or sense of consistency. But while hope is not lost for the Frenchman, his relegation to the Championship weakens his unique selling points.
With Rafa Benitez at the helm, Newcastle steadily woke from their slumber, suddenly reinvigorated to perform much closer to their true level. And even though their away form is still the Achilles heel that ultimately saw them relegated, Benitez’s coaching pedigree cannot be questioned.
Indeed, one of the Spaniard’s first jobs has been to rejuvenate Sissoko and appoint him as captain in the absence of Fabricio Coloccini and following an unsuccessful spell under summer signing Jonjo Shelvey.
And along with a subtle tactical tweak to position Sissoko on the left flank in a freer role to accommodate the impressive form of Englishman Andros Townsend on the opposite side, Sissoko has belatedly put in some much improved performances to help Newcastle in their upturn in form.
But such improvement should not come as a shock. In footballing terms, they often say that managers remember the players who have done them damage. Benitez would have been well aware of Sissoko’s presence long before he joined the relegation threatened side after the Frenchman’s glorious home debut in 2013 against his Chelsea side when the Spaniard was Interim Manager at Stamford Bridge.
Indeed, it took something incredibly rare in Rafa Benitez’s career, a defeat to Newcastle United, to first alert him of the capabilities of Moussa Sissoko during that match. And he would have accepted the opportunity to save Newcastle knowing he would have the chance to work with such a player and bring him back to the kind of form that warranted talk of Champions League football in the first place.
He will have remembered the physicality and pace of the 26-year-old and one of his first tasks on Tyneside will have been to identify how to deploy them to maximum effect. What has followed is a combination of positions on the left flank and a freer central role to allow Sissoko space to surge forward and utilize his impressive skill set, whilst ridding him of the defensive duties that all too often hinder his game.
These subtle tactical adjustments made Sissoko the star man in Newcastle’s 1-1 draw with Manchester City, and emphasized Benitez’s huge and often under-appreciated ability as a strategist.
With fewer defensive duties, Sissoko was left able to utilize his pace and power to drive Newcastle forward and be the catalyst Newcastle have sorely missed this season while the player was shackled on the wings.
Benitez will also have witnessed firsthand Sissoko’s important role in the training ground politics at Newcastle. With such a prominent French speaking contingent, he is a player that many of the others look up to.
It is this off the field prominence that will have convinced Benitez that the midfielder would be the right choice as captain. And with a 3-0 win over Swansea City at St James’ Park in his first game with the armband, such a move has been wholly justified.
Indeed, Benitez has spoken of the Frenchman’s value to his squad, saying:
“Sissoko I think is really important.
I was trying to explain some little things in training; little details to Mbemba and some others players in French and in English.
And afterwards Sissoko was helping me, telling them how you want them to do thing and to do specific things like this.
He has been important both on and off the training field.”
And while some eyebrows were raised at the appointment of the Frenchman as captain, his decision has been fully vindicated with a string of improved performances, although it came too late to save his team. Benitez added:
“Sissoko is a good example for the other players.
I was not choosing him as a captain because he was running a lot and that’s it, it was because how he was behaving himself in training sessions, he is someone who listens to you and works hard.
He is good with players and he is helping me with some French players. I can talk a little bit of French but obviously when you want to say something important, he can translate.
It’s good for the team to see someone who is working so hard in every training session and during the games, playing at this level.
Hopefully he can keep the level and the others can follow him.”
But while the player himself has managed to up his game recently, Newcastle fans will feel aggrieved that such a player could not replicate his true form earlier in the season and potentially save their club from the plunge. Indeed, despite his improvement, bad blood unfortunately exists for a player that obviously pines for pastures new. Speaking about Europe’s premier club competition, the Frenchman has said:
“I always want it, but everything is about timing. For now, I do not play in it, but I’m patient. This may come in a year or two years. I await my hour calmly.”
But with one goal and seven assists in his 38 domestic appearances this season, has Sissoko done enough to deserve his place amongst Europe’s best? Or has he fostered a reputation as a player unwilling to perform when the occasion does not suit him?
For Les Bleus, Sissoko remains a favourite of Didier Deschamps, for his versatility and all round skill set, hence his call-up to the French national team. But perhaps he could have been more than a bit part player for France this summer if had not so disappointed at Newcastle, when his club needed him more than ever.
But for any criticism the player receives, Sissoko remains a potent player capable of providing a surging and powerful midfield presence, with an equally unappreciated technical ability. And with 35 caps so far for his national side, he remains a precious commodity for club and country.
If he is to achieve the kind of career he dreams of however, the Frenchman’s next move will be crucial. Newcastle’s relegation will ultimately lead to Sissoko’s departure and maybe now he will be forced to prove himself a more consistent force if he is to truly fulfill his potential, somewhere else.
Hope is not lost for Moussa Sissoko, and this summer’s EURO 2016 will give him the perfect platform to show the world what he is truly capable of. While Newcastle fans will feel aggrieved that he could not often replicate what we know he can do on a more regular basis, Les Bleus, and indeed whichever side enjoys his services next season, can still reap the rewards of a player who has so much to give.