Newcastle United’s loss at Leicester showed that they haven’t improved much under Eddie Howe, and they now have some difficult matches ahead.
Of all the sirens that went off at The King Power Stadium as Leicester demolished Newcastle United 4-0, the loudest was probably that the home side didn’t need to play that well to win by such a handsome margin. Such is the gulf in quality between these two teams that all it took was an arguably questionable penalty award to nudge those floodgates open, and the Newcastle players’ apparent lack of spatial awareness and basic defensive competence took care of the rest.
Make no mistake about it, this defeat was a case of Newcastle United reverting to type. The sense of relief that had engulfed St James’ Park after finally registering their first league win of the season against Burnley was understandable, but it also masked the fact that very little really seemed to have changed. Two pretty mediocre teams scrapped it out for 90 minutes, with a horrendous goalkeeping mistake proving the difference between them.
Getting those points on the board was important, but it only applied the most temporary of balms to a situation which remains as critical as ever. That Newcastle even remain in touch with the other clubs at the bottom of the table having won just one of their first 16 games of the season could be considered a slice of good fortune. They’re one of five clubs to have drawn either seven or eight Premier League matches so far this season and they remain just three points from safety, but their current record extrapolated across 38 matches would only return 24 points, and things aren’t immediately about to get any easier.
Their next three games are against Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United. It’s not until December 30 that they emerge from this fairly hideous run of fixtures with a home match against Everton, and this is followed in January with further consecutive potential relegation six-pointers against Southampton, Watford and Leeds United, as well as a potential banana skin of an FA Cup third round match at home against Cambridge United. In the rush of speculation about the club’s activity in the transfer market during January, it is important to remember that there are still actual football matches to be played too.
Against Leicester, it didn’t look as though Eddie Howe has made a great deal of progress with this team at all. Sure enough, the award of the penalty kick that broke the deadlock was a little contentious, but Newcastle only found themselves in a position in which it could be conceded in the first place because their defence was messing around with the ball on the edge of their own penalty area. Having fallen behind, familiar issues rose to the fore, most obviously the porous nature of their defending, which turned a narrow 1-0 deficit at half-time into something of drubbing by the final whistle. The Burnley win was Newcastle’s only clean sheet of the season in the Premier League, and it showed.
The compare and contrast between Newcastle and Leicester was telling. Leicester didn’t exactly go into this match in sparkling form themselves, having won just one of their previous six Premier League matches and having just been eliminated from the Europa League at the group stages, with a profligate defence that had conceded nine goals in their previous four games. Yet Leicester – who surely remain a template for any football club looking to establish itself in the Premier League – retain the services of such players as Youri Tielemans and James Maddison, individuals capable of bending the shape of a game to their will. Newcastle simply do not have players who can control a game like this.
By the halfway point of last season, the three teams that ended up getting relegated from the Premier League were already in position, and it looks as though Newcastle will be no better off than Fulham were by the time they’ve played half of their fixtures. Fulham ended up 11 points adrift of safety, despite finishing 18th in the table. Furthermore, forthcoming fixtures also pit some of the teams around Newcastle against each other, so depending on others dropping points to stay in touch may also prove optimistic.
This group of players, it is commonly assented, simply isn’t good enough to stay in the Premier League, all of which leads back to the small matter of that January transfer window, because it’s looming ever larger on the horizon for Newcastle, to the point that it now resembles a basket into which all of their eggs have been placed for the remainder of this season. But the club still doesn’t have a director of football, and the January transfer window is tricky enough to navigate with one of those, without even factoring in the likely ‘Newcastle tax’ which will be payable to any club who knows how much money they have to spend (a lot) and how desperate they may be to bring in the players to keep them in the Premier League (very).
It will probably be expensive and it might not even work, but it’s about the sum total of options at Newcastle’s disposal right now, should they be serious about staying in the Premier League. Eddie Howe is doing what he can, but Newcastle are at risk of slipping into even deeper trouble before the transfer window even opens, while even throwing money at the team for a month might not be enough to act as a panacea for their ills. Beating Burnley wasn’t so much a false dawn as something that looked from the outside like a collective hallucination, and if the Leicester result did bring the club back down to earth with a bump, that bumpy ride seems destined to continue for the next three matches, at the very least.