Newcastle’s games will soon truly be “must-win” after baffling plans and sad performances left it one of only two teams in a relegation fight.
The Magpies are two points clear of 18th-place Fulham with a match-in-hand on the Cottagers but look as bad as anyone in the league as Steve Bruce has failed to coax performances out of his men.
Injuries to Allan Saint-Maximin and Callum Wilson have been big issues for Newcastle, but that fails to explain how the club is on its second winless run of six or more games this season following a 3-0 loss to Brighton and Hove Albion on Saturday.
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“We’ve got to dust ourselves down and get a couple back in the next couple of weeks,” said manager Steve Bruce. “We’ve got nine games to go. We had been doing well of late to a degree. We have to accept we were nowhere near good enough.”
There’s a huge issue with that quote from Newcastle’s embattled boss, and it’s that he says the Magpies “have been doing well of late to a degree.”
First of all: “Of late” and “to a degree” represent qualifiers to a concept (“doing well”) that isn’t exactly a table-topping term.
Secondly, you’d be hard-pressed to find too many people, even those in the Newcastle dressing room, who’d agree with the well-traveled manager.
The Mapgies have played 19th-place West Brom, Jack Grealish-less Aston Villa, and 16th-place Brighton in the last three weeks. They’ve scored one goal and taken two total points.
In those games, Bruce’s Magpies have combined for 1.42 expected goals.
And his players aren’t exactly sounding like people preparing to pull themselves up by the proverbial bootstraps.
Ryan Fraser says Newcastle needs to “save our season now” and that the team room “mood is the lowest it’s been.”
Ryan Fraser: 'We need to save our season now. We want to try and work on how we’re going to stay in the league. We’re not in the bottom three yet, and we’ve still got games remaining.' #nufc
— Miles Starforth (@milesstarforth) March 20, 2021
And why wouldn’t it be? Newcastle’s 18 goals from open play and 36 against are both pitiful totals. Only Miguel Almiron, Saint-Maximin, and Wilson have been involved in more than three goals, and the three players averaging the most shots-per-90 — Andy Carroll, Dwight Gayle, and Jacob Murphy — have played a total of 1,452 minutes this season.
Newcastle has the second-worst possession total in the league to West Brom, the third-worst passing completion behind West Brom and Burnley, and they’re allowing the third-most shots per game (14.3).
The Magpies have been relegated twice since 2008-09. Each time, they won the Championship the next season. The first time they lasted five top-flight seasons and even enjoyed Europa League. This is the fourth season since they were promoted in 2015-16.
There’s an argument to be made that this is the worst team of the bunch. 2008-09 came after the club sold Shay Given and James Milner and the club scored 40 goals and allowed 59. 2015-16 was a team that couldn’t defend but saw Rafa Benitez nearly rally the club to safety, drawing Man City and Liverpool down the stretch. Goals scored? 44. Allowed? 65.
This season looks like a team that has either quit, doesn’t care, isn’t good enough, or all three. They’ve scored less goals per game than that season and their concession total is going to be nearly as high as the others.
Shockingly, the Magpies are here despite demonstrably proving they can hang with anyone when the plan is good. Newcastle beat Everton twice, West Ham once, and drew Liverpool and Spurs.
This same team has also lost to Sheffield United, drawn West Brom and Fulham, and been swept by Brighton and Leeds.
They’ll return from the break to meet a stung Tottenham before visiting Burnley. Then it’s West Ham, Liverpool, Arsenal, Leicester City, Man City, Sheffield United, and Fulham.
The good news is that the Magpies beat West Ham and Burnley earlier this season and drew Fulham, Liverpool, and Man City. The bad news is that two of those were shocking and nearly impossible to predict, while the West Ham win was on opening day and has proven an anomaly.
And Newcastle has to ask itself whether Bruce is the man to engineer a second result against Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola? Is he a man who sweeps Sean Dyche and David Moyes?
There’s an argument to be made that allowing Bruce to oversee the stretch run is as bad a decision as any made by a top-flight club in the last 10 years.