WHEN Alan Pardew granted his Newcastle United players a mid-season break, perhaps he should have spelled out that it was not to start at four o'clock on Saturday afternoon.
Tenerife, where the Magpies squad find themselves this morning at a warm-weather training camp, boasts more undeveloped land than any other Spanish island. It is safe to say, however, that it cannot have anything like as many open spaces as could be found in the visitors' half of the field at Craven Cottage at the weekend.
Leading through Danny Guthrie's magnificent long-range strike, Newcastle were poised to close within two points of fourth-placed Chelsea when they entered the half-time interval against a Fulham side that looked devoid of both confidence and cohesion.
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Forty-five minutes later, and they had slumped to their heaviest defeat of the season. Beaten and bedraggled wasn't even the half of it.
In the space of 16 chaotic second-half minutes they managed to concede two penalties, dispatched by Danny Murphy and Bobby Zamora, and two further goals to Clint Dempsey. Even when another spectacular solo effort from Hatem Ben Arfa threatened to spark an unlikely revival, their defence parted pathetically for a fifth time to enable the in-form Dempsey to complete his hat-trick.
Craven at the Cottage? Calamitous was probably a better description for an implosion that was entirely out of keeping with the rest of Newcastle's displays this season.
“I can't really explain it,” said a clearly shell-shocked Pardew. “The strength of our team suddenly became a problem. That unit at the back didn't play well in the second half. It was nowhere near good enough in terms of the standards they have set themselves.
“Without criticising individuals in our team, our second-half display was not what we have been doing all year. I can't think of another period in any game where we were quite as inefficient as we were for 25 minutes here.”
Inefficient, inept, call it what you will. Either way, the wheels well and truly came off as Newcastle suffered the kind of defensive collapse that will have been all too familiar to supporters of a particular vintage, but which was supposed to have been eradicated under the current regime.
The question for Pardew and his staff to ponder, as they soak up some winter sun, is whether the second-half display was merely an aberration, one of those things that afflicts every side now and then, or indicative of a deeper malaise that could undo much of the good work that has occurred in the first half of the season.
The players, perhaps understandably, are favouring the former. “We didn't get too high after the Manchester United game, and we're not going to get too low after this,” said Guthrie. “It was a 20-minute period where it all went wrong, and we haven't really done that all season. We'll go away, clear our heads and get ready for the FA Cup.”
Pardew, too, was keen not to read too much into a collapse that few saw coming. Yet it would be wrong to completely ignore the danger signs that were apparent throughout a second half that was every bit as one-sided as the first had been in Newcastle's favour.
Before we get to what went wrong, it is worth remembering that, for the opening 45 minutes, much went right. Fielding a remodelled formation, with Ben Arfa starting on the right and Leon Best shuffled to the left, Newcastle completely dominated the first half and should perhaps have had more to show for their efforts that Guthrie's searing 42nd-minute drive.
Yet within little more than 20 minutes of the second half, all that was an irrelevance. So what changed?
Plenty as it happens, but while no Newcastle player can be particularly proud of his efforts in the final 45 minutes, Mike Williamson and Davide Santon were particularly culpable for the unfolding devastation.
Williamson was dragged here, there and everywhere by the movement of Zamora and Andy Johnson, and Dempsey's second and third goals were a direct result of the chasm that repeatedly appeared at the heart of the Newcastle defence.
Yes, the American took his opportunities well, but he had acres of room to run into. Williamson's return from injury has masked the impact of Steven Taylor's Achilles injury, but for competition if nothing else, Pardew surely needs an alternative option at centre-half.
The Newcastle boss has clearly decided that Santon offers more at left-back than Ryan Taylor, and in an attacking sense, he does. Defensively, though, the Italian still has plenty to learn.
He could have been sent off for a first-half tug on Johnson that was a direct result of getting himself into a horrible position on the halfway line, he was rightly penalised for a 51st-minute foul on Damien Duff, even if the initial contact appeared to be outside the area, and he was miles out of position as Tim Krul's save from Zamora inadvertently set up set up Dempsey's first goal.
At the moment, he looks like what he is – an out-of-position left-back attempting to learn his trade. That's fine, but can Newcastle really afford his education to take place in the Premier League?
Perhaps the situation would not have been so chronic had the Magpies had adequate midfield cover. Guthrie and Yohan Cabaye impressed in the first half, but once Johnson arrived to effectively transform Fulham's attack into a front three, the pair's lack of positional nous contributed to Newcastle being completely engulfed.
Would the same thing have happened had Cheik Tiote been present? It's doubtful. But with Tiote potentially away for another three weeks, Pardew will have to come up with a way of obscuring his absence.
“We have to accept that people will mention (the players that are at the Africa Cup of Nations), but we don't want to lean on that,” said the Newcastle boss. “It wasn't a case of our players not trying in the second half, we just lacked mental discipline and it cost us. There's not many times I've been disappointed as the manager of this team, but that was one of them.”