To some it might seem quite far-fetched to claim that Newcastle United have made any worthwhile progress in the last few weeks, given that they end Boxing Day in the relegation zone.
However, while the last two home games have yielded a disappointing return of just one goal and a solitary point, Newcastle, for all their faults, have displayed an oft-lacking commitment, solidity and inner resolve – finding a way to stay in games against the odds.
A hugely unexpected six points from the Liverpool and Spurs games must not be forgotten, despite the disappointments since.
Far from missing Tim Krul, Rob Elliot has easily been our best performer in the last couple of months and has put in some stunning performances. Not only has he gained the respect and admiration of the fans but he has found his voice inside the dressing room and is now establishing himself as one of our most vocal leaders.
Similarly, much-maligned club captain Fabricio Coloccini has found some form after a few nightmare performances and summer signing Chancel Mbemba’s influence is growing with each new game. While few fans would argue against the glaring need for a top class left-back, Paul Dummett has also impressed recently.
Daryl Janmaat is still living life on the edge and his fondness for making telling attacking contributions still leaves us exposed at right-back but with the team so heavily reliant on his overlapping runs down the right, perhaps he deserves to be cut a little slack. As sins go, trying to do too much is one of the more admirable ones.
So, with Newcastle’s defence slowly improving, Steve McClaren now needs his misfiring frontline to find some form if the Magpies are to pull clear of trouble.
A tight encounter with Everton could easily have yielded three points had Aleksandar Mitrovic not blown Newcastle’s biggest chance when he headed wide following a Moussa Sissoko cross, while Siem De Jong’s glaring miss with Newcastle a goal to the good against Villa ultimately proved hugely costly – possibly even more so for him than for the team.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that his miss not only lost us two points but may also have ended any hopes he had of becoming an integral part of our first team plans.
Mitrovic, Perez and Co. are not short of ability but might be feeling the pressure given that the Magpies rarely command games, or even try to play expansive, attacking football, let alone manage to succeed.
Recent weeks have seen Steve McClaren admit defeat in his attempts to enforce a patient passing game and he has instead opted to play on the break and hope that Moussa Sissoko’s pace and direct running can prove decisive. There’s no doubting that it’s a handy option to have but it’s not the long-term answer.
The dearth of creativity in Newcastle’s narrow, often pedestrian, midfield means that their forwards are left feeding on scraps and under big pressure to make the most of the few chances they do get. Miss one of the chances that does happen to come and their confidence quickly drains away and panic sets in, further compounding the problem.
With Vurnon Anita offering little in the engine room, Gini Wijnaldum’s talents being wasted out wide on the left and Florian Thauvin sat on the bench, a handy solution may well be staring Steve McClaren right in the face.
For all the modern day talk of transitions of play, inverted wingers and possession football, sometimes less is more. What was ever wrong with square pegs in square holes?
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