As much as it might seem remiss to criticise a team for not racking up relentless wins this year after only last season fighting relegation for most of the campaign, the nature of competitive sport is that objectives are inherently fluid.
Overperform against early expectations and, naturally, thoughts turn to what kind of glory might be achievable. Underperform by a distance and in English football specifically, merely avoiding relegation can quickly become all-important.
Across Newcastle United’s first 16 Premier League matches this term, they lost just once, kept enough clean sheets to have the top flight’s best defence and built a reputation of being tough and irritating to play against.
Eddie Howe’s side launched themselves a top-four bid on the back of some consistent performances, Miguel Almiron having the best campaign of his career – this side of the Atlantic, at least – and others such as Liverpool and Chelsea failing to hit the heights expected of them.
Since the World Cup break, though, it has been a very different story. On Boxing Day, the Magpies hit Leicester for three; since then they have won just once in the league in 2023, lost back-to-back games in the competition for the first time and were beaten in a cup final in between. While performance levels will not precisely attest to this being a case of the wheels falling off, there’s a specific area of the team which is definitely causing problems: Newcastle’s attack.
Following the 2-0 defeat to Man City on Saturday, the Magpies have failed to score in three straight defeats by the same scoreline. In their last 13 in all competitions, they’ve only managed to score twice in the same match on two separate occasions – both in the League Cup. In the same period, they’ve failed to score at all in six games and it’s just three goals in the last eight in the league, one every 240 minutes of play.
Put simply, it isn’t enough of a strike rate to keep them in contention for a top-four finish.
That isn’t to say they haven’t been creating chances. There were a handful of openings against Man United in the League Cup final which could have fallen more kindly. In their home defeat to Liverpool, Howe’s side hit the woodwork twice and were denied in one-on-one situations by goalkeeper Alisson.
And, here against Man City, three big chances in particular should have yielded rewards: Callum Wilson had a great opening in the centre of the box but only scraped his studs at the ball, Sean Longstaff was denied at close range by a sliding block or two and Joelinton failed to make any connection at all when the slightest touch would surely have seen the ball end in the net.
It’s also worth noting that these three straight defeats came against sides who either are or have been towards the top of the table. Easier games lie ahead, though part of the dismal run of late has come against the likes of Leeds, Crystal Palace and Bournemouth.
The concerns are mounting up. A January transfer window where Newcastle left themselves short in midfield seemed the bigger issue initially; instead, signing Anthony Gordon for big money and not seeing it pay immediate dividends looks problematic. An air-kick when through on goal in the first half summed up his lack of impact so far.
In 2023, Newcastle have taken seven points from as many games, with just one win. Meanwhile, since the new year top-four challengers Tottenham have claimed 15 points from nine, Liverpool have picked up 11 from eight and Brighton 11 from only six. They’ll all play later in the weekend, of course, but they are each in form accumulating points at a far greater rate than the St. James’ Park club.
If results go against them, Newcastle could be seventh by Monday night with Fulham also leapfrogging them, albeit having played more than the rest of that group of clubs.
As ever, the manager will point to being unable to affect other teams’ results and merely concentrating on improving his own.
But after such a great run of form earlier in the campaign, Newcastle’s first full season under Howe would definitely have harboured ambitions of European qualification, as well as a trophy tilt.
They just fell short in the latter; Howe must fix their issues in attack quickly if he is not to watch the same happen to the former.
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