With just a handful of games to go in this year’s Barclays Premier League, the atmosphere at St. James’ Park is one of tension, frustration and, ultimately, disappointment, as Newcastle United find themselves locked in a battle to avoid their second relegation in less than a decade.
The Magpies currently sit just above the very foot of the table in 19th, with a single point separating them from local rivals Sunderland, and safety. Newcastle’s extra game in hand would, to many, present a fighting chance for one of the English game’s oldest and most prestigious clubs to pull itself out of the mire, but recent performances suggest, if anything, the match will provide little more than further evidence to supporters of the glaring issues at the football club.
Following the recent 3-1 loss to Bournemouth at home, supporters wrote in to the club in frustration at the current regime in place at the club. Manager Steve McLaren is also currently living in the media hotseat, with some sources reporting the board held a meeting on Monday, before McLaren took training on Tuesday as planned. The club’s last win in the league came at the start of February, with a slender 1-0 win over West Brom the last result fans of the north-east side had to cheer. Subsequent losses against Chelsea, Stoke and last weekend against Bournemouth have left some calling into question the desire of the current playing squad to turn the situation around.
And the criticism from the supporters is justified. A quick Google search will pull up an opinion piece from the Daily Mail as early as 2013, demonstrating the length of time supporters have been forced to deal with what can be best described as an inconsistent run of performances. So; just what are the issues that Newcastle need to address, and fast?
Despite the eleven men in black-and-white being the ones who ultimately decide the fortunes of the club on the pitch, all eyes will divert immediately to the job Steve McLaren is currently doing as they search for an explanation. Whilst McLaren’s recent track record is far from successful, his appointment last summer was a solid one for Newcastle, albeit far from an ambitious, attacking appointment that supporters were clamouring for. Equally, the failure of the players to bounce back from defeats, or on occasions where McLaren has called for a response, suggests either the players aren’t listening to him, or are unable to follow his instructions.
So does that mean the quality of the squad is to blame? Despite the tightened purse-strings of owner Mike Ashley in the past, last summer the club went on a spending spree and ‘improved’ the team. Of those signings, it could be argued, only Wijinaldum has earnt his keep with his nine goals making him the club’s top scorer. By comparison, he has hit over four times as many goals this campaign than long-term striker Papiss Cisse.
Across the entire squad, Newcastle have hit 27 goals in the league this season, less than Luis Suarez managed in a single campaign for Liverpool in 2013/14. Putting the ball in the net is a clear issue for the Magpies, with their attacking style, if indeed they have one, closely resembling that of a cautious hunter trying desperately not to scare the deer away. Sloppy in position and increasingly void of creativity the further up the field they progress, it isn’t difficult to work out why Newcastle find themselves in this position.
So, if the squad is the issue, who’s fault is that? Well, to an extent a combination of everybody at the club. The signings haven’t lived up to expectations, which falls within McLaren’s remit. Being able to invest in players of a suitable standard is ultimately the responsibility of the owner and board. Identifying those players, if the funding is made available, falls to the clubs scouting staff and coaches. So where do Newcastle go from here?
Firstly, they work out who’s having a bad season, and who just isn’t good enough to play at this level. Quick fixes won’t work here – it’s time for Newcastle to lay foundations. In many respects, it may even prove useful for the club to be relegated, as if to finally send the appropriate shockwaves around St. James’ Park. A few seasons ago, Newcastle were celebrating a solid 5th place finish. A few seasons prior they were relegated. Perhaps the formula will work again, and this time a long-term plan can be put in place to maintain the team’s position.
Will they avoid the drop? That game in hand could prove crucial. If given a straight choice between Newcastle and Sunderland for the drop, the latter provide a far more convincing argument for staying up. However, if the Magpies can steal back the advantage with their game in hand, albeit against Manchester City, then matching the form of the Black Cats is, by and large, an attainable goal. And that may be their best chance, because Newcastle seem only just more capable than Villa of grinding out convincing performances at the moment.
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