So nearly the return of the Entertainers. So nearly that elusive first win, one which, given results elsewhere, would have been oh so very precious.
And one that, but for a moment, might have been. As Joelinton shimmied inside onto his left, SJP held its breath. It was late in the second half and three a-piece by then, the Brazilian having earlier used the same foot to lash home a smart finish that ensured half-time parity (2-2).
But this was now. United had twice come from behind. Eddie Howe – confined to his hotel room having tested positive for COVID-19 – would have strained forward. Would it be the winner the much-derided forward’s performance deserved? Could Howe really have masterminded a two-week transformation no one saw coming? Not quite. In the end, Joelinton crumpled in a heap, perhaps exhausted from his afternoon exertions. A salient reminder that work is very much in progress.
It was though Joelinton’s best game in a Newcastle shirt. Deployed on the right of United’s 3-4-3, for ninety minutes – and perhaps for the first time – he looked every bit a Premier League attacker. When upend himself by tangling his own legs in the opening minutes, few would have imagined it. Same old, same old. But he hauled himself straight up, regained possession and whipped in a decent cross. Does this team now fight?
From there Joelinton never glanced backward. Not only was there endeavour, but plenty of quality too. Some quick feet helped him escaped a tight spot over towards the East Stand; it drew a gasp one part delight, two surprise. Promising signs, but remember – for now at least – that’s all they are.
More on Newcastle going forward later. For their problems did not lay attack. If the defence was NHS registered, an envelope would have dropped last March; “Clinically vulnerable – must shield.”
Karl Darlow looked every bit the man he was: a goalkeeper knowing he’s in the final throes of his stint as a top-flight number one. Quite how he allowed Ivan Toney to play the ‘one that got away’ card just 76 seconds after Jamaal Lascelles’ headed home the opener, only he will know.
Not so much Toney haunting his old employers – the shot was tame and ordinarily easily dealt with – but Darlow haunting himself. If the self-isolating Howe had resisted the hotel mini-bar until that point, what odds he scuttled for some London-priced refreshments? It would be a surprise to everyone – including Darlow – if Martin Dubravka is not re-instated for next Saturday’s trip to the Emirates.
He has had enough good days not to throw him under a bus completely. But his indecisiveness makes both the crowd and, more importantly, those in front of him nervy. Not coming at all would be better than being bound to the line by a short and invisible dog training lead. Time and again he rushes out, gets a metre or two and is jolted stationary.
Those in front of Darlow were little better. Building a case for the defence is a fruitless task; “Newcastle United’s solid back line” is a sentence even a Tory minister might think too ridiculous to utter in public.
The issue is almost to a man, every defender Newcastle own, needs cover. The ‘not quite good enough for a back four’ brigade. Fabian Schar is Howe’s second-best ball player but inadequate at his main job. He also has a tendency to make mistakes and stay down injured. Lascelles – who could do little about Frank Onyeka’s second-half shot that deflected off him and past Darlow to make it 3-2 to the visitors – and Ciaran Clark are, well, what they were four seasons back. Ritchie was at least in full radge mode, never more so than his Ketsbaia impression after his corner led to the first.
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If it sounds miserable, that is not the intention. There was plenty of much wanted and needed positives.
First half in particular there was a tempo, a slick enticing rhythm to United’s attacking play and an urgency last seen god knows when. Granted, the bar is not particularly high and there has been plenty to loathe in recent years. But for the first time post-Rafa, there was structure. Something coherent, a plan beyond the “give it to Allan and hope”.Every pass brought an equal and planned reaction, a movement into space. This full-time training lark might catch on.
Not that there is anything wrong with giving it to Saint-Maximin mind; he was full of trickery and a constant thorn. Mads Roerslev and Sergi Canos could lay neither finger nor foot on him at times. His far post leveller to make it 3-3 was a canny finish from a delicious whipped cross by substitute Ryan Fraser.
Fraser has done little of note on Tyneside thus far and, given his history with Howe, many thought he may fade (further) into the background. Trusted to enter ahead of Miguel Almiron, the move was justified. As well as the assist, there was a vital intervention on the edge of the box as Brentford threatened to steal a winner. More of the same please.
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If Howe is to build a side around Jonjo Shelvey – which looks to be the case – then this has to be his performance baseline. Shelvey is not a square peg that can be forced into a round hole. Ask him to do a job somewhere and, well, he can’t.
But allow him to do his thing; spray the ball around fromdeep with that pair of pitching wedges for feet he owns, and you might be onto something. There will be frustrating eye-of-the-needle attempts. There will be gesticulated ambling, underserved rollickings handed out to bystanders to mask his own deficiencies. But with a willing runner – which Joe Willock for much of the afternoon was – it might just work. In reality, it has to work. Alternatives? Sean Longstaff. Sadly, the less said the better.
Thomas Frank will say his side were well worth their share. And with three goals away from home, having led twice, he would have a point. He does have a point.
His side’s second – to make it 2-1 – was lovely; Vitaly Janelt’s sweeping left-footed ball wide; Canos’ inch perfect cross and Rico Henry stealing in at the back. Unmarked. They were clinical too, scoring from three of their four shots on target. Frank will be pleased with that, as they’ve been wasteful at times this season. But at the back they were uncharacteristically shaky, albeit Alvaro Fernandez did not have a serious save to make. Toney though, did deny Callum Wilson on the line in the first-half.
For all upside, the downside is simple; Newcastle prop up the table. And perhaps more worrying than Howe’s absence today, is that he will have no ‘in-person’ time with the squad ahead of Arsenal. At a push, he might get 48-hours pre-Norwich.
Perhaps new eras just aren’t our thing, at least not conventionally. Steve Bruce managed to attend the first game of his afterlife, while Howe was barred from his own welcome party. You really couldn’t make it up. Be honest; you probably wouldn’t change it either. Well, maybe a little.