MARTIN BLAKE (@Martinb1892) looks at how Anthony Gordon is shaping up on Tyneside.
After our victory over Southampton, the press pack attempted seven questions to Eddie Howe about Anthony ‘Flash’ Gordon. Journalists are either sifting for gold or grit. With Anthony Gordon there is a recurring theme to the questions. When will he shine? Did Everton get £45m for dead wood?
The first film I saw at the cinema, Flash Gordon (1980), contains an apt storyline. The film hasn’t aged well but the plot features a NASA scientist who notices the Moon is 12 degrees off course. A powerful emperor, Ming the Merciless, has hijacked the Moon to destroy the Earth. The scientist takes baseball star Flash Gordon to confront Ming. I know it sounds shit but I won’t spoil the ending for you. The other suitably named Flash who springs to mind is the irresistible Lord Flashheart, brilliantly played by the late great Rik Mayall in Blackadder. Mayall’s blonde-locked sex god slayer of Germans and Spaniards always gets the girl, is loved by all and exudes confidence to the extreme whilst saying, ‘Woof’ and thrusting his pelvis.
In the case of Newcastle’s ‘Flash’ it’s too early to tell how the story ends. The merciless media sense he may drift a few degrees off course due to two incidents that will follow Gordon around until he creates a new narrative. The bitterness of his Everton departure after he was chased through the streets following defeat to Southampton. The immature snub of Howe’s hand after his late withdrawal from the Brentford game, arguably his best performance to date in a Newcastle shirt. The Twitterverse is rife with the same threads of impatient speculation. What does he bring? Where is his best position?
In his breakthrough season Gordon played 2,285 minutes registering four goals and two assists (0.32 per 90 mins). His aggression, pace and desire to take on opponents earned rumours of approaches from Chelsea. The Blues eventually opted for Raheem Sterling before a considerably more expensive January signing of another 22-year old, Mykhailo Mudryk who amassed 13 goals and assists in 910 minutes (1.09 per 90 mins) for Shakhtar compared to Gordon’s 0.25 per 90 mins this season at Everton.
Gordon will be 23 next February. Most footballers rise towards their peak between the ages of 23 and 28. He merits comparison to wingers between the ages of 21 and 23. The standouts this season have been Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli, both younger than Gordon. Also within this pool are Phil Foden, Alejandro Garnacho and Mudryk, as well as plenty from lesser teams. Where we need him to rise to next season is the next category which includes Kaoru Mitoma (25), Luis Diaz (26) and a host of 23-year olds such as Cody Gakpo, Joao Felix, Jadon Sancho, Antony and Dejan Kulusevski.
Younger wingers are often starved of consistent game time. Equally, younger wingers don’t enjoy the luxury of possession in progressive areas or permission to carry the ball there. Saka, Foden and Martinelli are in the top 2% in Europe for receiving the ball near the opponent’s goal. Whilst Gordon has been denied game time (less than 400 minutes) there is encouragement that he has carried, passed and received the ball in dangerous areas more than he did for Everton. Eddie Howe and the players clearly have confidence in him as evidenced by the naked eye too. He wants the ball. He gets it.
Opta do not just look at goals and assists: they also look at impact out of possession (tackles, interceptions, blocks and aerial duels won). Howe and Ashworth’s eyes must surely light up here, when it comes to Gordon. As a midfield/forward he is in the top 1% for tackles, top 3% for blocks and at six foot tall, he is in the top half in the air too. We don’t get this from ASM.
Where can Gordon improve? His finishing, certainly. Many of his goals for Everton owed much to deflections and good fortune. Gordon managed 70 shots since his Everton breakthrough in 2021 with 48% on target. For Newcastle he has troubled the ‘keeper with only 14%. No surprises that Howe commented that Gordon is practising his shooting before and after training. With better shooting boots he’ll earn his spot ahead of ASM (36%) or Murphy (35%). Otherwise, the rumoured signing of Harvey Barnes (45%) could push him down the pecking order.
Gordon’s passing (68%) and take on (43%) success rate is not there yet. However, he finds a Newcastle teammate 82% of the time. His short pass success rate (91%) and medium range (85%) passing have improved since signing. This progress justifies Gordon getting more game time than ASM who is far more wasteful. Given this is an aspect of ASM’s game his manager emphasised he must work on, he has recorded his worst season to date for short (78%) and medium (68%) passes. That first wonderful pass Gordon made on his debut against West Ham still sticks in the memory.
Heatmaps evidence that Gordon’s best position is on the left wing. Howe shows a clear preference for inverted wingers who will cut in and torment defenders. What Gordon needs more than anything before the end of this season is a moment of magic or two. An important goal or assist. Something that will put enough rubber on the end of his pencil to erase everyone’s memories of the two incidents that haunt him.
The Brentford strop was the moment that sowed the most doubt. A manager of Eddie Howe’s immense intelligence and diligence deserves respect. Gordon needs to stop worrying about his barnet and the red-tinged bum-fluff on his face. He needs to replicate the drive and commitment from the training ground to St. James’ Park and reward the unwavering support he receives from the stands. Respect the manager. Absorb the feedback. Show patience as this talented coaching team finds a pattern of play that feeds the creative monster we believe he can become.
The coaching staff have yet to find a cunning plan that benefits Gordon. That which unlocks his talent just as we have seen with Joelinton, Willock, Longstaff, Isak and Almiron. Gordon, like those others, can still find his summit. Knock one of those chances in, sunshine, and we’ll carry you to your Mercedes and Eddie will drive you home holding hands. Woof! Gordon’s Alive!