Newcastle United in the comfort zone but that doesn't stop the disquiet

Low on goals, on shots and on entertainment, Toon are struggling to make a mark

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What is the point of Newcastle United? Existential questions may abound in the emptiness of a pandemic but they have long surrounded a club that had a strong, proud identity.

To survive? Perhaps, and Newcastle should, and with something to spare. They were in effect safe by March last season. They are already seven points clear of the relegation zone and if the failings of the bottom three give an artificial feel to that statistic, the lack of peril removes a threat or an imperative to change anything or anyone. What it does not do, however, is remove the sense of disquiet.

To entertain? History suggests Newcastle did and if the image of them as inveterate attackers is only true in parts of their past, they do not now. Most markers suggest they are among the worst and the dullest teams in the division.

They rank 20th for shots, 20th for shots on target, 19th for touches in the final third, 19th for completed passes, 18th for possession and 18th for key passes. It is harder to put a figure on excitement but, barring Allan Saint-Maximin’s solo runs, they offer precious little and the Frenchman has been more subdued this season.

To be efficient? A businessman like Mike Ashley might argue so. Newcastle have a curious kind of productivity. They do not play well that often – they have been awful against Brighton and Southampton this season and utterly unambitious against Manchester United and, last week, Chelsea – and yet turn relatively little into a reasonable points tally.

To progress? Many would argue they cannot under Ashley’s ownership and, after a Saudi-backed takeover failed in the summer, linger in perpetual limbo.

Ashley tends to afford his managers time but some would say – and in age of empty stadia, it is harder to determine how much the predictable unrest on social media mirrors the feeling of the wider fanbase – they cannot under Steve Bruce.


Newcastle v Chelsea ratings


His results and approach show similarities with Rafa Benitez’s but Bruce lacks the credibility of a former Champions League winner or the body of support. When his side are bad, they are really bad, and fewer mitigate for him.

Newcastle go to Crystal Palace on Friday after consecutive wretched displays. Bruce had two weeks to prepare for last week’s tame defeat to Chelsea. He had very few international call-ups, so plenty of time to work with his players. There was no semblance of an offensive strategy

“Our last three games the team we played against could have gone top of the league,” Bruce argued, though two of those teams were Everton and Southampton.

“In the last couple in particular we haven't played well enough. We accept that and move on. It's important we show that resilience again and try to get a result."

His best chance of one is available again after a hamstring injury. Callum Wilson’s clinical touch has camouflaged Newcastle’s lack of threat. Albeit aided by penalties, he has six goals from just 16 shots. The rest of the squad have three between them.

Bruce’s pragmatic decision to commit £20 million to a 28-year-old striker is being justified; Wilson’s goals should guarantee safety. The hope was that he would spearhead a more attacking side but an injury-hit Ryan Fraser has been limited to 185 minutes, an unhappy Miguel Almiron has lost his place and Saint-Maximin has lost his spark, especially when used as a No 10.

So Newcastle, who are potentially without a couple of players due to Covid-19 and are waiting on captain Jamaal Lascelles, will probably concentrate on defence. It seems to be what they stand for now, but the unrealised aim is to represent something more.