It’s gone better than many expected for Steve Bruce. But Mike Ashley’s round shadow still lingers over St James’ Park…
Best player: Martin Dubravka
The Slovakia keeper is a huge reason why Newcastle are sitting comfortably in mid-table, rather than scrambling around near the bottom, as many expected after Rafael Benitez’s departure. Only four stoppers can top Dubravka’s nine clean sheets, with Alisson, Dean Henderson and Kasper Schmeichel all on 10 and Nick Pope boasting 11.
Dubravka has been far busier, however. He has made more saves than Henderson and Alisson combined and 30 more than Burnley’s Pope. Indeed, no other keeper has made as many saves this season as the Newcastle No.1’s 157.
Had it not been for coronavirus, we would have seen just how much Newcastle relied on Dubravka. The 31-year-old sustained a serious knee injury at Southampton in the last game before the shut-down and Steve Bruce faced being without his keeper for two months. The Magpies are well-stocked for stoppers but Dubravka’s absence would almost certainly have been felt.
9 – Based on Opta's expected goals on target data (xGoT), Martin Dubravka has prevented nine goals in the Premier League this season; only Vicente Guaita (10) has prevented more of any goalkeeper. Vital. pic.twitter.com/r2NBcuxi3X
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) March 11, 2020
Biggest disappointment: Joelinton
Newcastle’s success has been built on the their defence, which is fortunate since their attack is dreadful. Sadly for Joelinton (Jeff, to his mates, we would hope), the record signing is the poster boy for that failure.
The £40million arrival from Hoffenheim has scored just a solitary Premier League goal this season. Forty-million pounds. One goal. And that came seven months ago.
The Brazilian has looked utterly lost in the No.9 shirt, though it is not entirely his fault. The fact Newcastle signed him at all begs some questions – not because he’s a terrible player – but what was it that made the thriftiest owner in the Premier League make it rain so suddenly?
In two years in the Austrian league and another in Germany before joining Newcastle, Joelinton had never scored more than eight league goals in any season. He has averaged a goal every 4.27 games since moving to Europe, and if Lee Charnley was telling the truth when he said that a deal to sign the striker was agreed last February, he had five goals to his name by that stage of the season. Those figures and the one Ashley willingly paid Hoffenheim simply don’t add up.
Joelinton’s adaptation to English football has not been helped by the vast contrasts between Bruce’s defensive style and that of Julian Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim last season. But even that cannot excuse his miserable return.
Worst performance: Leicester 5-0 Newcastle
“It is a bad, bad performance… it was worse than that if I’m being honest, it was totally unacceptable.”
Bruce seethed on the sideline in late September while watching his team turn out the kind of performance that gets managers sacked. The Chronicle was equally as damning. ‘A horror show is an understatement. This will go down as one of the worst away performances in the club’s Premier League history.;
Newcastle were 1-0 down at half-time but the cue for the capitulation appeared to be Isaac Hayden’s needless red card just before the break. Leicester scored three in 10 minutes around the hour mark before Wilfried Ndidi completed the rout in the 90th minute while the travelling Toon Army sang through the misery in a corner of the King Power Stadium.
It gave Bruce just one win from his first eight games in charge – which included a similarly spineless defeat at Norwich – and put the manager under severe pressure…
Best performance: Newcastle 1-0 Manchester United
The Magpies apparently rediscovered their pride during the week between the mauling by the Foxes and United’s visit to St James’ Park seven days later. The players gave Bruce his first win over his former side in 21 attempts as a manager with a performance full of the heart and graft that was so woefully absent in Leicester.
This was hardly a vintage Manchester United side. Indeed, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was under similar pressure to Bruce with the visitors having won only two of their first seven Premier League games amid their worst start for 30 years. It was billed as the most miserable match-up of the early season.
It only turned out that way for the visitors. Bruce’s team, which had been leaked to the papers the day before, scrapped for everything and claimed victory in Roy Of The Rovers style, with Matty Longstaff drilling in a 20-yarder on his first top-flight start.
Bruce was chuffed to prove a point: “I know I am not going to be everyone’s cup of tea but the nonsense that flies around is insulting. Hopefully this helps the cause.”
Having started the day second from bottom, the win did spark an improvement. It was the first of six wins in 11 games before Christmas.
Biggest VAR moment: Two overturns at Southampton
Newcastle have done pretty well out of VAR. Their games have featured only three overturned decisions, all in their favour.
Jonjo Shelvey’s goal at Sheffield United, Newcastle’s second in a 2-0 win, was allowed to stand despite Dean Henderson barely bothering to play on after he saw the linesman’s flag go up against Andy Carroll, who provided the assist.
But VAR’s intervention at Southampton last time out was perhaps more pivotal. Newcastle were five without a win in the Premier League and four without scoring while facing the threat of being leapfrogged by Saints if they suffered another defeat at St Mary’s.
The game’s decisive moment came just before the half-hour when Moussa Djnepro’s yellow card was upgraded to a red following a review of his foul on Hayden. It allowed Newcastle to play the last hour a man up, and VAR tried to give them a helping hand in breaking their goalscoring drought by awarding a penalty before half-time. Matt Ritchie, though, saw his effort saved by Alex McCarthy.
Newcastle eventually made their dominance pay when Allan Saint-Maximin broke McCarthy’s stubborn resistance late on. It took Newcastle to a snug 38 points, instead of looking over their shoulder five points above the relegation zone.
Dick move: Mike Ashley’s every move
We’d like to separate Ashley’s dickishness from the football club, but while he insists on dragging its proud name into the gutter, it is simply impossible.
If we must pinpoint one dick move, let’s go for the one freshest in our memories. You’re only ever a day or two on from one where Ashley is concerned.
Last week, after attempting to claim that flogging cheap tracksuits and massive f*ck-off mugs was an ‘essential service’ at a time of national crisis, the Toon owner refused to comment on what the club might do to help protect its employees and supporters from the financial fall-out of the coronavirus pandemic. Season-ticket holders pleaded for a delay on the advance renewal payments at least until there was some clarity over what they might be paying for. Many other clubs did the right thing. Ashley, of course, did not.
Full payments were taken from Geordies’ bank accounts and other direct debits will remain as scheduled. Then, almost immediately after, came the news that Newcastle’s non-playing and coaching staff were being placed on furlough leave.
A reminder: Ashley is said to be worth around £2BILLION.
Literal dick move: THIS
Manager’s job security:
For as long as Ashley owns Newcastle, Bruce is as snug as he can be in the St James’s Park hot-seat. As soon as new owners come in, if they ever do, then the manager will be on the back foot. It almost doesn’t matter what happens on the pitch in the meantime.
"My darling, you with the headband, you are different gravy."
— Newcastle United FC (@NUFC) March 12, 2020
Did their recruitment work:
When your record signing scores one league goal all season, it adds a turd-coloured tinge to the rest of Newcastle’s business too.
Saint-Maximim is brilliant fun to watch and the winger has lifted spirits on and off the pitch at Newcastle this season. The only other player the Magpies signed permanently for actual money was the immaculately-coiffured Emil Krafth, who has managed a grand total of six Premier League starts, five of which came in the opening seven games, before Bruce presumably sussed that the Swedish right-back isn’t up to much.
Andy Carroll was worth a punt on a free transfer and though he’s not done much – anything? – it was perhaps a deal worth making just for the injection of positivity around his return home.
Newcastle have relied heavily on the loan market, and Jetro Willems impressed before a knee injury ended his season. The jury is still out on Danny Rose, Nabil Bentaleb and Valentino Lazaro since they’ve had no chance to get their feet under the table just yet.
What they need this summer:
A new owner.
If that isn’t forthcoming, then Bruce says the club have already identified “three or four quality players to add to the experienced core we have got”. Though he follows it by saying “when this blows over, we will make the moves to get them,” which suggests he might be in for a shock when Ashley tells him the coronavirus has wiped out his transfer budget.
Among those targets must be a centre-forward, a left-back – Rose, probably – and a central midfielder. Newcastle had an offer accepted for Boubakary Soumare but the Lille star wisely opted to keep his options open for the summer.
The F365 Show is on hiatus until the football returns. Subscribe now ready for its glorious comeback. In the meantime, listen to the latest episode of Planet Football’s 2000s podcast, The Broken Metatarsal.