Newcastle finally have their first league win of the season, but there was little at St James’ Park to indicate that a corner has been turned.
Must-win. MUST-WIN. MUST-WIN.
It’s not even Christmas yet, but Premier League football often feels as though it’s played as much in the future as it is in the present these days. The build-up to Newcastle United’s match against Norwich City was trailed as a ‘must-win’ match. Newcastle didn’t win against Norwich, but somehow, against all odds, they were back on the pitch just a few days later for another MUST-WIN game at St James’ Park, this time against Burnley.
The task at hand was difficult, and the record books spoke for themselves. This was Newcastle’s 15th league match of the season, and they hadn’t won any of the preceding 14. Two successive home matches against the other two teams in the Premier League’s relegation places were supposed to tell us a lot about their chances of avoiding the drop. If they couldn’t earn at least one win, how realistic is it to have any hope whatsoever that they can survive relegation? But then again… calling any game being played before Christmas ‘must-win’ is a little bit hyperbolic.
St James’ Park roared as ever as the teams took to the pitch, but the noise carried an undercurrent of skittishness. There’s long been a sense of desperation around Newcastle, a feeling of clamour for something greater that isn’t being delivered. But as the nights have continued to get shorter and results haven’t improved that much, the club’s support is starting to sound increasingly desperate. Throughout this match, the noise reached eardrum-rupturing levels with every ill-conceived venture forward, before receding back to nothing as the game settled back into its torpor. It was immediately obvious how desperate they were for somebody to pull a moment of inspiration out of somewhere.
And five minutes from half-time, something was literally dropped into their lap by Burnley goalkeeper Nick Pope. The lofted cross into their penalty area seemed to have been hit more in hope than expectation but Pope, who’d come to the penalty area to claim the ball, spilled it on his way down, allowing the ball to bounce loose for Callum Wilson to drive it into the roof of the goal.
Pope clattered into a couple of Newcastle players on his way, which necessitated a fairly lengthy VAR check, but the goal stood. Newcastle had offered next to nothing for the previous 40 minutes, but had the lead regardless.
It should be added that Burnley offered little themselves either, apart from hitting the post early on through Johann Berg Gudmundsson. There was also the worrying sight of Maxwel Cornet limping away from the game with an injury after 32 minutes.
As the second half progressed, it became increasingly clear that Burnley had nothing to offer. On the rare occasions they did get anywhere near the Newcastle penalty area, there were too few options for the final ball, while it was surprising that they continued to allow themselves to be pushed back as easily as they were. Newcastle dominated possession in an attempt to score the second goal that would put the game beyond reasonable doubt, but when they pressed, they did so largely ineffectually. The noise inside the stadium reached a fever pitch every time the ball came within about 30 yards of the Burnley goal, but there was little in the way of goalscoring opportunities to get excited about at either end.
In the closing stages, Burnley finally shook themselves awake and started to try to have a go at Newcastle, and they found – as so many others have – that there were gaps at the back that could be exposed. But when they did work their way into promising positions, they found that the final ball was terrible, that there was no-one offering a great deal of support inside the penalty area or, as in the case of Jay Rodriguez putting the ball into the Newcastle goal, their strikers were half a yard offside. By stoppage-time the tension could be cut with a knife, but Burnley really had so little to offer in attacking positions that Martin Dubravka’s goal was seldom in any danger.
So there was joy and a little relief upon the final whistle blowing, but all signs continue to indicate that Eddie Howe has got an uphill battle if he is to keep Newcastle in the Premier League. They won this match thanks to a goal that came about through a pretty egregious mistake by the opposing goalkeeper, and didn’t really create that much of note otherwise.
It should also be mentioned that Burnley were terrible, looking even more limited than Norwich did when they visited here during the week. Devoid of attacking ideas without Cornet on the pitch, they didn’t seem to have much idea of how they could respond to going a goal down, and seldom seriously looked like getting back into the match, even when they started throwing more players forward in the last ten minutes.
Does four points from six against the other two teams in the Premier League relegation places at the start of the weekend represent progress? Newcastle supporters may well say yes, but this is progress from an extremely low bar indeed. Burnley’s toothlessness was something of a surprise, but losing Cornet after just half an hour to injury severely reduced their attacking options and they were unable to even really look that close to getting back into this match. Wilson’s goal proved to be just about the difference between two very underwhelming sides. Howe won’t care too much for the details because he got the win, but Newcastle still need to improve if they are to survive. Just the 23 must-win games to go.