Newcastle ended a five-match winless run by beating Wolves, and also ended another unwanted streak going all the way back to April 2021.
In more ways than one, Newcastle needed every single bit of that.
They needed a performance, they needed a win, they needed Miguel Almiron.
This was much more like the team that appeared set for the Champions League before a five-match winless run left them behind malfunctioning Big Sixers Spurs and Liverpool. It says a great deal about the mistakes of that pair – as well as the more catastrophic collapse of Chelsea – that a run of one win in eight hasn’t entirely derailed their top-four chances. They’re now back up above Liverpool in fifth, and just four points behind Spurs with two games in hand.
We’re firmly at a point, though, where the benefits of games in hand are dubious. Everyone has lots of games to play over the next couple of months; you don’t really want to be the team with more of them. The ancient laws of Games in Hand decree that they will always be viewed as delivering maximum points or zero points but outside exceptional circumstances I’ve always been a Points on the Board man. Spurs hold the whip hand.
But at least Newcastle have put themselves back in the conversation. There were a couple of significant factors that bode well for Eddie Howe’s team. Most obviously, the re-energising return of early-season Miguel Almiron. On the bench for the first time this season, he stepped off it to score the winner and dismantle the growing impression that his – and the team’s – regression to the mean was total. It was a livewire 22-minute cameo in which Wolves unexpectedly equalised almost instantly before Almiron combined with Joe Willock for a lovely-looking winning goal.
Beyond the fact it was their 2022 talisman Almiron who scored it and then embarked on a thrilling wild-eyed celebration, this was also significant for showing something else Newcastle have lacked even during their recent improvements. Bizarrely, this was the first game in any competition since April 2021 Newcastle have won after conceding an equaliser.
They still look quite tired. They still look ever so slightly short of top-four nous despite the frequent bed-shittings of Liverpool and Spurs. They still don’t quite score enough goals – this was the first time they’d managed more than one in a Premier League game since Boxing Day. But overcoming a spirited second-half fightback from Wolves shows there’s still something there.
The first half was the best Newcastle have looked in a long time. Alexander Isak may have 14 on his back but looked every inch a Newcastle No. 9 in a dominant display that featured a distinctly Sheareresque goal – defender muscled out of the way, powerful header into bottom corner – and constant threat whenever he was on the ball.
Newcastle deserved their lead on the balance of play, but there’s no point pretending they weren’t hugely fortunate minutes before the opening goal when Nick Pope’s questionable footwork could have cost them dear once again. Having miscontrolled a backpass he clear-and-obvioused Raul Jimenez but somehow escaped VAR’s glare. It’s boring writing about VAR, but this was a baffling failure to take advantage of a situation that is the video ref equivalent of an open goal. The incident came with the on-field referee understandably 50 yards from play; Wolves had just cleared a Newcastle attack but the ball appeared certain to be heading back where it had come from. That it wasn’t given on the field was thus both incorrect yet entirely understandable. Go and have a look at the monitor, get the right decision.
It was undoubtedly a penalty. More debatably, it could also have been a second red card in quick succession for Nick Pope, with the knock-on suspension impact. It was a huge moment in the game and possibly the season. Wolves have much to grumble about on that specific point, but it excuses neither their own timidity in the remaining 25 minutes of the first half, which Newcastle dominated, or their later uncertainty having been gifted an equaliser.
Wolves were better second half, but having got back on level terms seemed clueless about whether to stick or twist and did neither. Moving to a back five worked like a charm against Spurs last week but led only to confusion here. They still look like a team that shouldn’t get in deep relegation trouble, but like so many they just can’t drag themselves clear of all the unpleasantness. We remain convinced the bottom nine are going to finish level on points; Wolves, now the only team in the division yet to manage 20 goals, would be in a bit of goal-difference strife if/when that happens.