Laughing stock striker to midfield maestro: Joelinton the heartbeat of resurgent Newcastle

Much maligned £40m record signing has been key player in Magpies' rise up Premier League table this year under manager Eddie Howe

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When Newcastle United's players trudged off the pitch at the end of their 1-1 draw with fellow Premier League strugglers Watford in January, there was an air of despondency hanging over St James' Park.

A late leveller from Joao Pedro had denied Eddie Howe's team only their second victory of the season leaving Newcastle 19th in the table, one point and one place ahead of bottom club Burnley, who had three games in hand.

“We've damaged ourselves to a point ,” said Howe, whose team had been knocked out of the FA Cup by third-tier Cambridge a week earlier. “I just hope it doesn't leave mental scars for the players.”

Fast forward less than two months, and a very different picture has emerged for the Tyneside club after a run of results that has lifted them up to 14th, seven points clear of the relegation zone.

Only Liverpool (22) and Manchester City (19) have secured more points than the Magpies' 17 since the turn of the year and Newcastle have not lost a league game since their 4-0 home thrashing by reigning champions City on December 19.

The black and whites are unbeaten in the first seven games of the calendar year for the first time since 2004, when Bobby Robson was in charge and the club's fifth-place finish, and subsequent failure to seal a Champions League spot, would ultimately lead to their manager being sacked months later.

Little did fans know at the time but Newcastle would only finish as high as fifth once in the 15 top-flight seasons of mid-table mediocrity and relegation battles that have followed.

With a drop down to the second tier looking more likely than not, the club's Saudi Arabia-backed consortium bankrolled a busy month of transfer-window action with Kieran Trippier, Chris Wood, Bruno Guimaraes, Dan Burn and Matt Targett all arriving in January.

Helping shore up a porous defence was priority No 1 and the signings of Trippier, Burn and Targett – from Atletico Madrid, Brighton and Aston Villa, respectively – have given the backline some much-needed steel.

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Even the potential loss of La Liga-winning England international Trippier for the rest of the season to a foot injury has not stalled the recovery effort of a side who face Southampton on the south coast on Thursday.

But at the heart of the resurgence have been players signed by previous managers who have struggled for form and fitness. Saturday's narrow 2-1 home win over Brighton was secured thanks to two goals in as many minutes from Scottish winger Ryan Fraser and Swiss defender Fabian Schar.

Fraser, signed on a free transfer from Bournemouth by previous manager Steve Bruce, is enjoying his best run of form since joining the club in 2020, masterminded by his former Cherries coach, Howe. Schar was brought in by Rafael Benitez in 2018 but has struggled to hold down a regular starting place since the Spaniard left in 2020.

“It’s all positive for me … the place is a lot happier,” Fraser told NUFCTV last month. “I don’t want to say anything about the previous set-up, it’s disrespectful, but I think everyone is seeing the changes.”

Ryan Fraser is enjoying his best run of form since joining Newcastle in the summer of 2020. Getty Images

It is in Newcastle's midfield three where the biggest transformation has occurred. Such has been the form of Jonjo Shelvey, Joelinton and Joe Willock – dubbed “Jonjo Joe-Jo” by fans – that Guimaraes, their £34 million signing from Lyon, has been restricted to cameo appearances from the bench.

Shelvey is enjoying his role at the base of the trio, while Willock has finally found something like the form that persuaded Newcastle to turn his successful loan spell last season into a £22m permanent deal.

“The midfield has worked incredibly well and I’m reluctant to make too many changes when we’re in a really good flow,” Howe said recently.

The decision to move £40m record buy Joelinton from striker who could not score to marauding box-to-box midfielder has been the real masterstroke by Howe.

Joelinton has been a player transformed since moving into midfield. AP

After managing just six league goals in his first two campaigns, it became painfully obvious that leading the line and scoring regularly was not part of the Brazilian's repertoire – although what position actually suited him only became clear during the 1-1 draw with Norwich City last November.

Defender Ciaran Clark had been sent-off after just nine minutes and Joelinton was asked to move into a deeper midfield role as the team adapted to being a man down. It is fair to say he has never looked back.

“You can see with the way he’s performed, especially since I’ve arrived. He’s been unbelievable,” Trippier told the True Geordie podcast. “He can go where he wants to. He has the ability to be a world-class player.”

Sentiments echoed by manager Howe. “The biggest compliment I can give him is he hasn’t made it look hard,” he said. “His defensive performance has been at the highest level tactically. He has been perfect in that respect.”

A remarkable turnaround for a player who seemed to have cemented his place as one of one worst buys in Premier League history but is now being talked-up for a possible Brazil call-up.

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Updated: March 10, 2022, 6:21 AM