Gary Neville felt they were “embarrassing“, while Shay Given criticised them for being “too negative”. Jamie Carragher went about five steps further, describing Newcastle’s tactics against Manchester City as a “joke“.
“It’s not just Newcastle but the Premier League in general, when they come up against the top six, certainly at home, it’s becoming embarrassing,” Carragher said back in December. “The Premier League now is becoming a bit of a joke league, with the top teams being so far ahead of the ones at the bottom. For those clubs, its almost like they are accepting they are going to lose the game, as long as it is only one or two-nil.”
In their defence, so to speak, the trio of pundits had a point. Newcastle were beaten by only one goal when City visited St James’ Park two moths ago, but the scoreline betrayed the nature of the game. The hosts registered 22% possession and had two shots on target, rarely contemplating venturing from the edge of their own area against the runaway league leaders.
The transformation when the Premier League’s second-placed club were welcomed on Tyneside was stark. Newcastle did not abandon their defensive ideals on Sunday but did at least compromise against Manchester United. They were resolute – and at times fortunate – at the back, yet it was their efforts going forward which turned one valuable hard-earned point into three crucial deserved ones.
Rafael Benitez spoke of the problem Liverpool have with “the short blanket” back in October. “If you cover your head, your feet are cold; if you cover your feet, your head is cold,” said the Spaniard. “Sometimes when you attack too much, you are exposed in defence and to find the balance is the key to have chances to win titles.” Newcastle would earn a draw against the Reds the very next day; Joselu’s remarkably lucky equalising goal was the backdrop to a stoic defensive performance.
Until Sunday, that was their only point against the top six this season. In seven games against Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, United and Tottenham, they had drawn one, lost six, scored four goals and conceded 15. Brighton were the only club to earn fewer points against those opponents. Newcastle have based their plan for survival against beating the rest, not the best.
Did a quick mic test before I interviewed Rafa Benitez to make sure the levels were right..
Rafa: “No, no… One-Nil”
— Conor McNamara (@ConorMcNamaraIE) February 11, 2018
“The problem is when we have analysed some of our games against the top sides, we could have been there – we have been close,” said Benitez earlier this week, the manager referring to two particular instances this season. The Magpies took the lead against Chelsea in December before being beaten 3-1, while United came from behind to win 4-1 at Old Trafford in November. On both occasions, Dwight Gayle scored before the 15th minute, and Newcastle failed to defend their early lead.
Perhaps the hosts benefited from striking later on Sunday. After a first half in which neither side found the breakthrough – although Gayle was unfortunate not to win a penalty after a clear foul by Chris Smalling – the home fans would have been forgiven for thinking the worst. Yet it was Newcastle, not Manchester United, who grew into the game in the second half. Matt Ritchie’s first goal of the season was well-taken, and just reward for a battling performance.
From then, the Newcastle support greeted every save from the brilliant debutant Martin Dubravka, all three goalline clearances and every crunching tackle with the same vigour as they did Ritchie’s goal. Jamaal Lascelles and Florian Lejeune were excellent, Mo Diame and Jonjo Shelvey won their midfield battles, Kenedy was a constant terror from the wing and Newcastle were finally able to rely on something that has abandoned them all season: a stroke of luck.
Not that this was an unjust victory. As much as the visitors did not look like an elite side, there was little to suggest that Newcastle are trying to stave off the threat of relegation. There was no gulf in quality, no discernible gap. The hosts simply played their plan to perfection.
The reward is a first league win against top-six opposition since May 2016, and a leap up into 13th place. Newcastle have finally found the knockout punchline in this “joke” league.