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Opinion

How on earth did that happen?

2 months ago
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At this stage in the season, Newcastle United are six precious Premier League points better off than we were at the same stage last season.

Rivers of ink have been recklessly wasted over recent months in comparing the relative merits of Rafa Benitez and Steve Bruce.

Sides have been taken and opinions have become entrenched.

However, there is one unavoidable reality; Rafa has gone and he isn’t coming back (at least not while this owner remains in situ) and Steve Bruce is currently the Head Coach.

Anyway, I’m not going to mention Rafa at all, not even once, in this article.

Instead let’s focus exclusively on this season and ask the question, in reference to the current points total; ‘How on earth did that happen?’

When a team performs surprisingly well, beating all expectations, there is usually a reason. The Premier League is fiercely competitive and advantages have to be earned.

For instance when Leicester won the League in 2016 it was because they had in their first team at the time a trio of exceptional players who were at the height of their powers; Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez, and N’Golo Kante, supported by other players who were less gifted but equally committed to a powerful team ethic.

Let’s scratch below the surface to discover the secret of the Newcastle United unexpected success this season.

My first thought was that this could be down to individual players improving and progressing their own game as the season went on.

Who has improved this season?

Manquillo possibly, although he had a very good end to the previous season and may have carried that form into this. Dubravka has been outstanding in goal (mind you, he’s had a lot of practice!) but then he was outstanding last season. Almiron has added a few goals to previous outstanding performances.

That’s about it really. Oh, and somewhat worryingly, Sean Longstaff looks a shadow of the player he was a year ago and the less said about Christian Atsu’s progress the better.

I may be wrong but I suspect our improved points tally is not down to individual players improving.

Perhaps then it’s down to astute player recruitment. This is how most teams improve. The marquee signing at a cool £40 million was Joelinton, a striker entrusted with the legendary No 9 shirt. A player with such potential he actually got Mike Ashley excited about football again. But sadly, no, it’s not Joelinton who is the key to our success. 27 appearances have produced a miserly two goals and one of those was in the FA Cup 3rd round replay against Rochdale.

Allan Saint-Maximin has looked the business from the get go but has missed too many games. Likewise, Jetro Willems who has brought some quality to the left wing-back slot, but is now crocked with a cruciate knee ligament injury. Emil Krafth quite frankly looks like a waste of a squad place and Andy Carroll, although much loved, is more likely to be seen in the stands with his cap on, rather than on the pitch with his boots on. So, it’s not down to astute recruitment.

Maybe then, we can expect to discover the reason for the points improvement in the appointment of a new Head Coach who brings with him a whole new coaching team lifting a jaded squad with a new philosophy, a progressive style of play, a rationale that will lay the foundation for seasons to come.

Innovative ideas for a progressive age. A refreshing and visionary approach, subtle, nuanced, intelligent, fluid football at its best! And in this age of stats and data it will be the figures that will bear out this theory.

So what do the stats prove?

Possession – lowest in the league;

Passes completed – worst in the league;

Passes into the penalty area – worst;

Crosses – 2nd worst;

Shots on goal – 3rd worst;

Shots on target – 3rd worst;

Expected goals – worst;

Expected goal difference – worst.

The good news (or perhaps not!) is that we score well on aerial duels won and Dubravka has made more saves than any other keeper. So, maybe not the new style of play then.

In the modern game at the highest level there is an acceptance of the importance of the backroom team; medical staff, conditioning coaches, sports science experts, etc. The top clubs will have the best people working in elite facilities who can maximise the time on the pitch and the performance of their thoroughbred superstars. Is this the reason we’re doing so well? Have we stolen a march on some of our competitors?

Don’t be ridiculous! There have been times when the pitch has resembled the set for 1917 with bodies strewn all over. The fitness of key players isn’t the reason. In fact we’re down to bare bones and shipping in loan players by the day.

So, none of the above, but we are six points to the good and I think I know why.

It must be, just has to be, down to luck.

All those years when lady luck has punched us in the gut, this year she has decided we can have it all back. No major referee foul ups, VAR decisions broadly in our favour, added on time goals like we’ve never seen before, it’s all coming together.

Here’s the plan, Steve Bruce, keep your fingers crossed, touch wood, hang on to that four leafed clover and the rabbit’s foot. You may yet need all the luck you can get!

As Napoleon once said, “I do not want a good General, I want a lucky one.”

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