Alan Pardew and Martin O'Neill face the prospect of a north-east relegation struggle, with the latter's problems running deeper
If Newcastle United finish at least eighth in the Premier League this season their administrative and commercial staff can look forward to sizeable bonuses. Should fifth position or better be secured, these windfalls will rise to around 25% of basic salary but right now few of the club's backroom personnel feel overly confident about booking expensive summer holidays let alone splashing out on new cars or kitchens.
Four successive Premier League defeats and the collection of only 14 points from 14 games have made Alan Pardew's bold pre-season talk of Champions League qualification seem a distant memory. Instead the north-east horizon appears suddenly clouded by a prospective relegation battle with Sunderland.
At first glance, Martin O'Neill's haul of 13 points from 13 matches suggests a similar plight but closer examination indicates that the Northern Irishman's problems run appreciably deeper than Pardew's. While Newcastle's travails are mainly a result of the "perfect storm" created by injuries, suspensions and draining Europa League involvement exposing the high risk gamble involved in failing to adequately strengthen the first team squad last summer, Sunderland look bereft of imagination, incisiveness and inspiration.
On Monday it will be a year since O'Neill took over at the Stadium of Light. His predecessor, Steve Bruce, was sacked after winning five of 27 league games but the new manager has presided over only four victories in his past 27 fixtures, with the last three coming against sides reduced to 10 men. O'Neill remains confident he retains the support of Ellis Short, Sunderland's owner, but fans are wondering whether he is missing John Robertson. For so long a key coach at O'Neill's previous clubs, Robertson opted not to relocate to Wearside.
Supporters also query why their manager is so averse to rotation. O'Neill has placed his trust in a cadre of senior players who play week in week out but with Sebastian Larsson among those appearing jaded it is puzzling that David Vaughan, Fraizer Campbell and Connor Wickham are consistently overlooked.
While Steven Fletcher's £12m arrival from Wolves appears money well spent, Adam Johnson's £10m relocation from Manchester City has not yet proved successful. If it is legitimate to query whether a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation may suit Johnson better than the 4-4-1-1 configuration in which he is currently deployed as a winger, the sometime England international is possibly suffering from his team-mates' collective lack of pace. O'Neill has always favoured undoing opponents on the break but counterattacking units rarely come slower than Sunderland.
A manager renowned as a peerless, psychologically uber-skilled motivator has blamed a "fear factor" for the unwillingness to take creative risks that has led to players consistently passing sideways or backwards and rarely threatening from open play. It does not help that Lee Cattermole, his best midfielder, could be sidelined by knee trouble until February.
By then, Pardew hopes to have embellished a squad whose fifth-place finish last season was never going to be repeated without significant investment. Newcastle's professionals are privately colour-coded by coaches with purple signifying "elite" and grey "emerging" talent. Pardew's problem is that he only possesses 11 purples and when a few are injured or off form, the greys are not quite good enough to deputise. The absence of Hatem Ben Arfa, Yohan Cabaye and Steven Taylor will be felt acutely when Wigan visit on Monday night.
Last summer Newcastle's manager hoped to sign three new purples – Lille's Mathieu Debuchy, Twente's Douglas and Liverpool's Andy Carroll – but Mike Ashley and Derek Llambias, Newcastle's owner and managing director, work to strict budgets and deemed that trio overly expensive. "You can't have two purples for every position," says Llambias, overlooking the benefits of rotation, not to mention the reality that speculation really can precipitate accumulation.
Pardew, meanwhile, continues to alternate between variants of 4-4-2 and 4-3-3. A Newcastle team that recently topped the Premier League "long ball" charts after, untypically, unleashing more midfield by-passing deliveries than anyone else, invariably seem more in control of games when playing the latter system but to work effectively it requires Demba Ba operating to Papiss Cissé's left. A dominant, immensely influential figure in a dressing room in which Cabaye also has a very big say, Ba – who, by way of complication, is not exactly Cissé's soulmate – craves a central attacking role.
This has often meant 4-4-2 and a sometimes counterproductive managerial compromise but, with Pardew's principal priority now pacifying St James' Park, different tactics may await Roberto Martínez's players. "Our fans are upset and restless," acknowledges a manager suddenly struggling to bring the best out in his key midfielder, Cheik Tioté. "We must beat Wigan."
On Sunday Sunderland visit Norwich. "Of course there's tension," says O'Neill. "There's a fear factor which is about loss of confidence. It's brutal but we have to fight through it."