Misfire Newcastle missed out on a Champions League shot without quickly improving in attack

As remiss as it may seem to criticize a team for not relentlessly claiming wins this year after battling relegation for most of last season, the nature of competitive sport is that the goals are naturally fluid.

Exceed early expectations, and naturally, thoughts turn to what kind of fame could be attainable. Underperforming by a wide margin, and especially in English football, simply avoiding relegation can quickly become crucial.

In Newcastle United’s first 16 Premier League games this season, they lost just once, kept enough clean sheets to have the best defense in the top flight and earned a reputation for playing tough and irritating.

Eddie Howe’s side have slotted into the top four on some consistent performances, Miguel Almiron had the best season of his career – at least this side of the Atlantic – and others like Liverpool and Chelsea failed to reach the heights expected of them.

But since the World Cup break, things have been very different. On Boxing Day, the Magpies beat Leicester by three; Since then, they have won just once in the league in 2023, lost back-to-back games in the competition for the first time and have been beaten in a cup final in between. While the performance numbers don’t exactly confirm this is a case of falling wheels, there is one specific area of ​​the team that is definitely causing problems: Newcastle’s attack.

Following Saturday’s 2-0 defeat by Man City, the Magpies have gone without a goal in three straight defeats. In their last 13 in all competitions they have scored just two goals in the same game on two different occasions – both in the League Cup. In the same period, they haven’t scored at all in six games and it’s just three goals in the last eight in the league, one every 240 minutes of play.

Simply put, it’s not enough hit rate to keep them in contention for a top four finish.

That’s not to say they didn’t create opportunities. There were a handful of opens against Man United in the League Cup final that could have been friendlier. In their home defeat by Liverpool, Howe’s side hit the woodwork twice and were denied by goalkeeper Alisson in one-on-one situations.

And here against Man City, three big chances in particular should have been rewarded: Callum Wilson had a great opening in the center of the box but only scratched the ball with his studs, Sean Longstaff failed from close range on a sliding block or two and Joelinton couldn’t connect at all establish when the slightest touch would surely have seen the ball in the net.

It’s also worth noting that those three straight defeats were against teams that are or were at the top of the table. Easier games lie ahead, although some of the dismal run of late has come against Leeds, Crystal Palace and Bournemouth.

The concerns are piling up. A January transfer window that saw Newcastle fall short in midfield initially seemed to be the bigger problem; Instead, signing Anthony Gordon for big bucks and not seeing it pay dividends right away looks problematic. A puff of air on a first-half shot on goal summed up his ineffectiveness so far.

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In 2023, Newcastle have taken seven points from as many games with just one win. As New Year’s top four challengers Tottenham have taken 15 points from nine, Liverpool have picked up 11 from 8 and Brighton have picked up 11 from just 6. They’ll all be playing later in the weekend, of course, but they’re all in form and collecting points at a far higher rate than St James’ Park Club.

If the results go against them, Newcastle could be seventh by Monday night, with Fulham also overtaking them despite having played more than the rest of this group of clubs.

As always, the manager will point out that he cannot influence other teams’ results and is only focused on improving his own.

But after such great form early in the season, Newcastle’s first full season under Howe would definitely have had European qualification aspirations as well as a trophy slant.

They just missed the latter; Howe will need to quickly fix their problems in attack if he isn’t going to watch it happen to the former.

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