Fans of Newcastle United have endured something of a rollercoaster season thus far. From the highs of being bought out by Saudi Arabian interests and becoming the wealthiest football club in the world to the lows of picking up just 11 points and a single solitary win from the first half of the season, there has not been a dull moment at St James Park.
Although they might still be slightly giddy from the whirlwind takeover and excited at the prospect of a lavish January transfer window, most Geordies will have just one question on their mind: can they beat the drop? After all, being the richest club on the planet doesn’t count for much if you’re stuck in the second tier of English football. Here’s a look at some of the crucial elements which could decide Newcastle’s fate in 2021/22.
Finding their firepower
At the halfway point of the season, Newcastle had averaged just one goal per game. That’s a scoring record which is better than only three other teams in the league – and two of them occupy the other spots in the relegation zone. The news that star striker Callum Wilson is out for an extended period has come as a further blow, meaning other members of the team will have to step up to the plate.
On his day, French pace merchant Alain Saint-Maximin is perhaps the most exciting player in the whole division, but Newcastle fans will be all too aware that watching him in action is somewhat akin to playing video slots – you never quite know where the chips are going to fall. At times unplayable, Saint-Maximin does have a tendency to take too much on and go missing in crucial games, especially without a focal point alongside him. The recent signing of Chris Wood could provide the support he needs to flourish, but the New Zealander will also have to hit the ground running if the Toon are to have any chance of survival.
Keeping the sheets clean
Unfortunately, Newcastle’s problems this season have not been confined to the opposition’s penalty area alone. In the first 19 games of the league, they conceded a whopping 42 goals. Only bottom side Norwich City have let more goals fly past their keeper this time round. As a result, Eddie Howe will have his work cut out in shoring up the leaky defence and making them a force to be reckoned with once more.
There is an argument that the groundwork is in place for Howe to succeed. It wasn’t too long ago that centre back Jamaal Lascelles was being tipped for an England call-up, while in Fabian Schär and Federico Fernández, he has deputies who are renowned for their fighting qualities. On the flanks, Jamal Lewis came highly rated from Norwich, while right back Kieran Trippier has the pedigree to succeed – he’s coming fresh from a surprise La Liga victory with Atletico Madrid. In nets, both Martin Dúbravka and Karl Darlow have enjoyed a string of impressive performances, saving Newcastle’s blushes on more than one occasion. If Howe can instil the right mentality into these players, they should be more than capable of keeping the opposition away from their goal.
Beating their rivals
Any manager who has successfully emerged victorious from a relegation dogfight will tell you one thing: beating the teams around you is all-important. Newcastle’s season won’t be defined by how many they concede at the Etihad, Anfield or Stamford Bridge – but its outcome will be determined by whether they can pick up points against their fellow strugglers.
Norwich look all but relegated already, while Burnley are suffering an uncharacteristically poor season under Sean Dyche and have just lost their biggest goal threat in Wood. Newcastle must target victories against both of them, as well as besting other candidates for the drop such as Watford, Leeds and Brentford. Do so and they might just live to fight another day – but succumb to defeat and they’ll almost certainly be playing Championship football next season.
Mired in the relegation places but equipped with an almost blank chequebook, Eddie Howe has inherited one of the more intriguing challenges of the Premier League era. Can he beat the odds and keep Newcastle up? Only time will tell.