Newcastle United have now lost their last four games, scoring only one goal in that stretch. They’ve also won only one of their last seven. They’ve conceded seven goals in the last two games. In the normal (read: ridiculous) world of football, that would be cause for 64-point headlines reading SACK THE MANAGER, or at least CRISIS.
But this is Newcastle, where they’re a lot more reasonable than people give them credit for. The headline in the Evening Chronicle read ‘Awful United look as if they’re facing a long, hard winter’. Another read ‘Yes, NUFC are facing a relegation fight – but so are 12 others’. A third: ‘United no longer resemble a Rafa Benitez side.’
And that, of course, is the key. Rafa Benitez is the manager of Newcastle United, and he projects control and calm. In the post-match interview on Saturday he was obviously quite unhappy, but said merely that it’s never easy coming up from the Championship, the goal is to get 20 points in the first half of the season, every game in the Premier League is difficult, and the players have to work hard. Yes, it was manager-speak of a sort, but you felt you were actually hearing him say what he thought. No blame, no anger – just back to work.
To this observer, Newcastle are nowhere near crisis. They’re a promoted side which famously got very little transfer business done in the summer. They belong in the bottom half of the table. After losing their first two, they hit a hot streak, and they’re naturally coming back to the pack now.
I’d say they have three problems: one small, one big, one somewhere in the middle. The small one is those seven goals in two games. Very un-Rafa-like, you’d say. But his Real Madrid gave up seven in two against Sevilla and Barcelona, and his Napoli side did the same against Juventus and Lazio. It happens. Benitez is too consistent a manager for that run to continue for long.
I’m guessing the primary reason for the leaky boat is the absence of Jamaal Lascelles. He’s recovering from an ankle injury sustained against Bournemouth, and missed the two concession-filled games. He had also left the pitch before the Cherries scored the winner in that earlier match.
Lascelles is the captain and organiser. It’s always difficult for a mere fan to assess the impact of a back-line leader: we can’t see/hear exactly what he does on the pitch, or how his presence affects other players. But anyone can see that the defence has been at sixes and sevens the last two weeks, even when not giving up goals. He should be back before too long, and he and Florian Lejeune are likely to form a strong partnership.
The full-backs are good enough. Javier Manquillo is unremarkable but solid. On Saturday DeAndre Yedlin occasionally looked like a worthy teammate of Christian Pulisic, more often like a worthy teammate of Jozy Altidore. He’s very much a work in progress, but has shown enough to suggest he’ll improve under Benitez’ tutelage.
And when you think about all those GA, remember that Mikel Merino was missing too. In fact, he just returned from a back injury, subbing in against Watford after United were already three goals down. He looked pretty rusty, but it’s no coincidence the side lost all four games while he was gone. He’s their best player, excellent both at protecting the back line and aiding the attack. He’s better than Jonjo Shelvey at both ends. Hopefully he’ll be back in form soon.
And now for the big problem: scoring goals. The Magpies have tallied only 11 times in 13 games, and three of those came against an abject West Ham. Having Merino back will make a small difference, but elsewhere on the pitch the attack looks unreliable.
At striker you have Joselu, Dwight Gayle and Aleksandar Mitrovic: a trier, a flyer and a fire. Joselu fights for every ball, and can get himself into decent positions. Among players with more than 800 minutes he ranks sixth in shots/90. But he’s just not a top-flight scorer. Gayle has pace and pops up with a goal now and then, even when not facing Liverpool, but we’re still waiting for more. Mitrovic is always one step away from the nearest asylum.
In the last two games Benitez has played 4-4-2 with both Gayle and Joselu, but it hasn’t worked. Against Watford they both did a lot of leaping, running about and passing the ball to teammates, to very little effect. They probably need to go back to one up front, with Ayoze Perez behind the striker. Perez is notoriously inconsistent, but he brings genuine on-the-ball quality, and when he was starting seemed to mesh better with Joselu than Gayle. A five-man midfield should also slow down the opposition a bit.
The wing attackers have been disappointing. Matt Ritchie hasn’t contributed much lately. Christian Atsu looks a threat every time he gets the ball and runs at somebody, but the end product rarely materialises. Jacob Murphy showed some promise on the weekend, running well with the ball, moving intelligently into the middle, creating a good chance for Joselu. Maybe he can get a run of games now.
Which brings us to the middling problem: squad depth. The general failure to strengthen in the summer means when a starter is out, there’s not much back-up. Isaac Hayden, who has looked excellent at times joining Shelvey or Merino in front of the back four, was suspended for Saturday. His replacement? Mo Diamé. Remember when Diamé was being touted for Arsenal?
The holiday period is nearly upon us, and Newcastle’s shallow talent pool will be severely tested. But that’s been the case for pretty much every promoted side in the history of English football. Once the defence is back to where it was, I’m guessing the team will settle. It won’t be the most thrilling of seasons, but at the end it’ll be satisfying enough.
Am I being too optimistic? Maybe, but let’s face it, even if Newcastle do go down again, it looks as if Mike Ashley is finally selling. That’ll be all the thrill and satisfaction any Geordie could want – and, at last, an end to the biggest problem of all.