Despite what many people thought about Newcastle United coming in to this campaign, Steve Bruce’s side have exceeded almost all expectations. While it has been far from pretty at times, it has been mightily effective for the Magpies as they battle their way up the Premier League table.
Currently sat seven points above the drop, a fair amount of the Toon Army will be relieved by their relative league success but, as seems to be the modern way of things, they are still unhappy.
The Magpies may be sat in 11th as things stand, but their negative and direct brand of football makes for sore eyes at St. James’ Park, with many fans desperate for something more.
As 2020 appears ever closer on the horizon, here is 90min’s view of Newcastle at the halfway point in the season.
From the outside, Newcastle are in a strong position. Despite only winning two of their first ten Premier League matches, the Magpies have rallied themselves and now sit on 25 points following a strong November and early December – only five wins from that golden ’40-point mark’.
With rather steady ambitions of avoiding relegation, we would have to call Newcastle’s league performance a great success, especially considering how tight things are across the league table.
However, a lack of goals and an often dull and lifeless style has overshadowed what has been a good campaign. With the current injury to the exciting Allan Saint-Maximin, Newcastle look devoid of ideas going forward, often leaving them with the philosophy that defence is the greatest form of attack.
Their star striker and record signing Joelinton has also failed to live up to £40m expectations, with just the one goal in 20 appearances for the Magpies and key defensive injuries leaving Bruce scrambling for cover – something that will be telling as the festive fixture list continues.
In a day and age where nobody under the sun seems to care about the domestic cups, success in the competition matters little for a team like Newcastle, whose ambitions are focused solely on staying in the top flight.
But there is little shame in losing on penalties to Leicester in the Carabao Cup following a 1-1 draw in normal time, not that it would concern those in the north east anyway.
As another year goes by for the Magpies without a League Cup run, all eyes will turn to the slightly more sought-after FA Cup on 4 January. Bruce and his team will travel to League One Rochdale with hefty expectations of making the fourth round, while giant killings are always on the cards in this fabled competition.
However, depending on who Newcastle get should they progress, the FA Cup is likely to take a back seat as the fight for survival continues.
To make up for the lack of inspiration in attacking areas, Newcastle have always stressed the importance of defensive rigidity in recent times. With Rafa Benitez’s exit, Bruce followed in the Spaniard’s footsteps, forging the Magpies in to a team that prides itself on hard work and stoic defending.
Organisation is paramount, and it’s this that has seen Newcastle pick up results regardless of performance. With five clean sheets in the league, they have conceded 30 goals in 20 games, which doesn’t sound great, but is significantly better than a number of teams around about them.
The Magpies have also been hampered by injuries across their back line, with the likes of Jamaal Lascelles, Florian Lejeune and Matt Ritchie all having spells on the sidelines.
Despite this, Newcastle have also been reliant on their defenders for goals. Set pieces have become crucial for Bruce’s side, and defenders have scored ten times for the Magpies this term – exactly half of all their league goals.
Goals, goals and more goals. Newcastle have struggled to find the net for a fair old while now and this season appears no different.
The Magpies lost two key attacking players in summer with both Salomon Rondon and Ayoze Perez departing. Their replacements, Joelinton and Allan Saint-Maximin, have found goals hard to come by, despite the latter’s impressive displays.
Newcastle have now scored 20 goals in as many games, and a lack of dynamism and creativity in the final third often leaves them in a spot of hot bother. They have only scored more than twice on one occasion in 2019/20, something that will need to change if Bruce has any hope of being Newcastle boss next season.
Areas to Address in January
Unsurprisingly, Newcastle’s weakness is exactly where they need to invest in January. Top quality strikers are like gold dust in the Premier League and the Magpies definitely need a sprinkling.
With just one goal between all of their out-and-out strikers in the league this season, it might be time for Newcastle to dip in to their pockets and reinforce the attacking line with a natural finisher.
Meanwhile, the north east club could also do with some creative midfielders. With Saint-Maximin’s season blighted by injury, and Miguel Almiron having only one assist and goal all term, an attacking influence from deeper would also help lift the burden on the forwards.
The only player that gets the home fans off their seats is Saint-Maximin. The Frenchman arrived from Nice in the summer expected to bring an explosiveness to Newcastle’s front line, and boy he hasn’t disappointed.
While his goal and assist numbers need a little work, the 22-year-old has been a force to be reckoned with and has lit up St. James’ Park with his chaotic style, slowly but surely becoming a fan favourite.
If the winger can avoid further injury when he returns from the sidelines, he can make the difference for the Toon going in to the second half of the season.
Playing Premier League football next season seems highly likely for the Magpies, especially given the inconsistency of those below them in the table. Newcastle have won ugly this season, and picked up points without playing well – a good sign.
However, they can ill afford to be complacent. With the recent form shown by Southampton and Watford, there could be a third potential place in the relegation zone as the season draws to a close, and things can escalate so quickly in England’s top division.
The cup will be of little significance, with a second-string side most likely being used throughout by Bruce, whose sole aim is to keep his side as far away from the bottom three as humanly possible.
Premier League: 13th
FA Cup: 4th Round
Results have papered over quite significant cracks in performances at St. James’ Park, but it has worked. Newcastle sit in a comfortable and respectable 11th, seven points above the drop with half of the season played. I would imagine, given the animosity towards the appointment of Bruce, most of the Toon would have bitten your hand off for that in August.