Newcastle profit from Pardew's methodical approach
One of the hard truths about football coaching is that while many managers recognise the value of defensive discipline and team shape, spending hours doing it on the training pitch is a sure-fire method for ensuring most of the team get bored.
Newcastle, who have hardly been known for their strength in this area in recent years, have come up with a straightforward solution which has kept their players switched on and helped earn them the title of the Premier League's meanest defence heading into this weekend's fixtures.
Twice a week manager Alan Pardew splits his training sessions into two and drags his defenders away to work on positioning and covering and, while it is not exactly rocket science, the regularity of the sessions is clearly making an impact.
The Newcastle defence has significantly improved since last season.
First-team coach Steve Stone says there have been several factors in the Magpies' success this season, which has seen them rise to fourth in the Premier League table.
But combining hard work on the training pitch, detailed video analysis and weekly "defenders' meetings" has led to the usually porous defence conceding only four goals in seven league games.
"Newcastle have been a bit gung-ho in the past with the centre-halves marauding forward and the like, but you can't really play like that in Premier League," Stone says.
"If you are out of position and you lose the ball, teams can cut through you so quickly. When you play Manchester United, Arsenal or Tottenham, for example, you are at your weakest when you have the ball, when you are attacking or when you have a corner.
"That's when they can hurt you because you are out of position so we try and make sure we are in position as much as possible.
"Me and [assistant manager] John Carver take the forwards, and the manager takes the defenders away and we've introduced certain principles into the tactics so that, for instance, it doesn't matter if Ryan Taylor was to play right-back or left-back, he knows exactly what he has to do adjacent to the positions that the centre-halves are in.
"Basically, the manager runs through every scenario of where the players should be when the ball is in a certain position, whether it's a wide area, a central area, a goal kick, or whatever.
"It is something that actually started to come together last season and the manager said we'd be better at it this season once they understood his principles."
Those sceptical of Newcastle's lofty position will argue that they have yet to face any of the Premier League's big sides this season.
The team's equilibrium will be put to the test when they play Tottenham on Sunday before they come up against Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea in the space of three weeks beginning in November.
But Stone, who was promoted to the first-team staff when Pardew replaced Chris Hughton last December, believes the squad has an added depth to combat those challenges.
The departures of Kevin Nolan, Andy Carroll, Jose Enrique and Joey Barton left some fans feeling that the club was going in the wrong direction, particularly as there was no big-name signing to replace the £35m Carroll.
In their places, however, the likes of Demba Ba, Gabriel Obertan and Sylvain Marveaux have all added extra pace to the side, while Yohan Cabaye has proven a perfect foil for Cheik Tiote in central midfield.
"We now have five or six strikers vying for two places so they know they need to do well otherwise they'll be out [of] the team," Stone adds. "Last year we had to play the same two strikers, the same wide men and we didn't have any options coming from the bench.
"Now it's very strong and we have good players available. Look at Dan Gosling, who is an England under-21 international - he couldn't get in the squad recently; Shane Ferguson too. That's another reason why we have started well, because we have a fighting team spirit."
There is still money in the pot to bring in another striker in January, Stone says, but he insists that any potential purchase will have to suit what the team needs. There will be no star signings for the sake of it.
That sort of reasoning, combined with praise from his players, gives the impression that Pardew has not only restored some method to the madness at Newcastle, but also a significant boost to his reputation.
After his sacking by Southampton in August 2010, Pardew's appointment was met with indifference by Newcastle fans last winter.
Yet Stone has been impressed with the former Reading, Charlton and West Ham boss and says his man-management is a real asset.
"Tactically, he is as good as anyone," says Stone. "Some managers dither on the sidelines and that can cost you, but he will change things because he believes in his own ability and his own decisions. Managers earn their corn on match days don't they?
"He's got to work with the team all week, but he speaks very well and speaks in a way that gets players on side with him. It's not a rollocking, it's asking them to do it rather than telling them to do it so everybody feels part of a group.
"He treats players like adults where I've seen other managers treat players like kids and they don't respond to that at all. He has been in the game a long time as a manager so it's not like he has stepped in at Newcastle and it's all new to him. He understands the game."