Newcastle remain so ludicrously ahead of even the most optimistic schedule for their post-takeover journey that any criticism at all still feels glib, but another goalless draw is a teensy bit annoying.
Obviously, the very existence of irritation – mild or otherwise – about a result that lifts Newcastle above Manchester United into third is in itself a clear sign of How Far They’ve Come but nevertheless. The obviously incredible standout statistics – 15 Premier League games unbeaten, six clean sheets in a row – are just starting to be impinged by the drying up of the goals. This was a third goalless draw in four games. If the point at the Emirates was very much one gained, then for where Newcastle now are this one and especially that at home to Leeds mark points dropped and opportunities missed.
And when the other game in that recent run is a 1-0 win over Fulham secured with a late, late goal then it is a vast distance from a crisis but it’s still one goal and one unconvincing win in the last four games.
For Eddie Howe, this will be a doubly annoying result representing as it does a chance spurned to put even more distance between themselves and straggling superpowers Liverpool and Chelsea after their abysmal goalless draw at lunchtime.
This game wasn’t anywhere near as bad as that one, and both Liverpool and Chelsea can only dream of Newcastle’s current problems, but those problems are there. Palace away is nobody’s idea of a freebie, and they showed more of the character here that got them a point against Manchester United in midweek in a tough run of games that has also brought defeats to Tottenham and Chelsea in the last fortnight.
But if you’re looking at a top-four finish you would expect to make more of the dominance Newcastle enjoyed here. There were few clear-cut chances and letting Chris Wood go without a replacement secured already looked like like a needlessly careless act for a club in Newcastle’s position.
The main issue has been a slight yet inevitable regression to the mean from Miguel Almiron, allied to the continued ineffectiveness of Allan Saint-Maximin since his return from injury. He remains the one major Newcastle player to have conspicuously failed to thrive under Howe having so often been the one shining light in the bad old days. With Callum Wilson also short of minutes and Alexander Isak still feeling his way into Premier League football it is something that could be a problem for a while as Newcastle bid for a return to the top table of European football.
What’s of no concern for Newcastle is their defence. It is going to carry them through tough times and means they will always pick up points even when well short of their best. They haven’t conceded a Premier League goal since November 6. Even with a World Cup break, that’s absurd.
Teams are getting almost no change out of the back four, and when they do they still have to find a way past the goalkeeper with the best save percentage in the league. Nick Pope was a virtual spectator for much of today’s game, but still produced the game’s standout moment with a reflex, strong-handed save to deny Jean-Philippe Mateta one of the smashiest and grabbiest of winners. It was a nice thing. Pope’s excellence this season has been predominantly of the quiet and understated variety but of all Newcastle’s transfer-market canniness since becoming mega-rich game-ruiners the signing of the Burnley goalkeeper is perhaps the shrewdest.
There remains perhaps no other top club that would take a punt on Pope because of his distribution, but at Newcastle he has found the ideal club. A step-up, a chance to challenge, and a club that doesn’t place undue emphasis on playing out from the back. It means those lingering doubts remain, but this game was another to silence that other nagging doubt about keepers moving into the elite: how will they handle games where they have almost nothing to do, but what they do have to do is of paramount importance?
Pope is a markedly less busy keeper now than in his Burnley days, but no less effective.
As for Palace, this was a second hard-earned point in quick succession and the character showed felt necessary. There are still plenty enough worse teams far enough below them that relegation is not a credible threat, but the second-half capitulation against an out-of-sorts Spurs was a worry given the games that were to come. Those fears have been allayed; now Newcastle must use games against West Ham and Bournemouth to put their own nagging doubts to bed ahead of a potentially season-defining run of games against Liverpool, Brighton and Manchester City.