Three games; won one, lost two. That’s far from disastrous given the quality of the opposition. However, it has not been the barnstorming start to the new season we’d hoped for, nor some had kidded themselves to expect.
It might be time to take a breath and reflect upon those three games. Personally, I didn’t think it was a 5-1 game in the win over Villa and the scoreline flattered us. I’m not going all Alex Ferguson on anyone but Villa were decent for long stretches of that game. The injury to Mings and a Cash missed chance apart and the sides were closer than the scoreline suggested. Villa’s subsequent results have demonstrated that.
At Man City we had a reminder of just how good the treble winners are because shorn of some of their stellar performers we still never laid a glove on them. Enough has been said of the Liverpool game but suffice to say I thought we were naive against Klopp’s side. We also had a reminder although the Reds dropped off last season they are still a squad bristling with talent and have a manager who knows the game inside and out. No matter how much of a rollocking bell-end he can be on occasion, he is one of the best in the world. Only Pep Guardiola and he have won the Premier League and Champions League in this division. He’s an arse, but he’s a very good arse.
I’d expect Howe will analyse this game in detail but also himself. Someone clever once said you learn more from failure than victory so this is a big opportunity for us to chew over three points thrown away and improve.
For me we have played our strongest sides in the three games. Howe has had a virtual full deck to pick from but that doesn’t mean there aren’t key areas for improvement.
When I look at the trio of Tonali-Guimarães-Joelinton I’m of the view we have one of the best midfields in the Premier League. However, I don’t get the sense there is yet a clear vision of how they are going to play together. We can’t say they are complimenting each other yet or partnerships or threesomes have yet formed. That’s a key task for Howe in my opinion. We’re not seeing that threesome stronger than the sum of its parts just yet.
The same is true in attacking areas. I had thought Bruno might have been pushed up the pitch since Tonali’s arrival but that hasn’t happened. Isak has been pretty much cut-off from the rest of the side and has not received through balls and they didn’t come from wide positions either in the games v Man City or Liverpool. .
Ironically when Gordon played the Swede in from a more central position, he forced VVD to take him out on the edge of the box and get a Red card.
As for the rest of the team, there is a lack of partnerships in attacking positions – unless you count Trippier acting as Almiron’s right-foot when the Paraguayan needs to stop and check.
I would hope Howe has learned a lot this month.
There has been a lot of discussion on the substitutions at the Liverpool game from which the consensus has been United threw the game away. I don’t disagree with that but I also ask questions about our finishing against top opponents. When we miss big chances, then well, it is going to hurt us. So it proved in gut-wrenching style on Sunday.
More positively, Antony Gordon in these first three games has been fantastic. I made him easily our best attacking player v Liverpool. I’m particularly pleased for him because he endured a bumpy start to life at Newcastle United and even had some hysterical social media criticism, such is the lack of restraint from some quarters. That he’s coming good now should provide a lesson to those who currently question Harvey Barnes.
So, a warning for everyone in the Newcastle United family – patience is a virtue and we need to get real. What we have seen so far from our team is that we are work in progress. But there remains the slow undercurrent of improvement.
My belief is we will be in the conversation for the top 3-6 this season but we are in a pack that includes a revitalised Spurs, Liverpool, Chelsea, Villa and sides like Brighton, Fulham but behind Man City, Arsenal and possibly Man Utd. Who knows, West Ham could have a decent season too. It is still very early and there are 35 games remaining.
This is new ground for our players, the manager and his staff. Bar Kieran Trippier, still the best signing the club has made under the new ownership in my opinion, no-one at United has breathed in the rarefied air of being at a PL club with increased and justifiable expectation, awaiting a Champions League draw. Howe was at his first Cup Final last season and this will be his first campaign in Europe – as it will be for many of the players. This is a young club in manifold different ways.
It’s a reminder of just how box fresh everything is at United these days that we’re all more than giddy at the Champions League draw this week which of course coincides with the end of the transfer window.
On transfers I think we’ve all been broadly positive about the business the club has done this window. There is a definite sense United is building for the future. It is also true of the four players signed only one has started three games this season, Barnes has had sub appearances, Hall didn’t make the bench for the Liverpool game and Livramento was unused after his cameo appearance last week at City. .
There are of course valid reasons for that but when the TF team on our Podcasts are rightly commenting upon the drop off in quality with the replacements for Tonali, Gordon, Joelinton and Botman then that’s a point worth making.
We’re awaiting news on Botman’s injury but as the window started with a lot of talk of a new right sided central defender being needed to provide cover for Schar and that not yet having been achieved, we are exposed at the back. Whether the departure of Fraser to Southampton on loan (with United likely picking up a lion’s share of his salary), talk of Manquillo, Hayden, Hendrick going and a potential transfer out of Lascelles to Besiktas is real would open the door to a new player coming in, I don’t know. But I do know the Botman knock is a reminder of how thin we are in that position.
And so to the Champions League draw. We aren’t bouncing into the draw full of ourselves after beating or even drawing with a recent winner of the tournament. It remains an exceptionally exciting prospect and whilst supporters are embracing it with a sense of adventure, I think these first three fixtures have given us a taste of what it will be like to come up against elite European competition.
Spoiler alert, I don’t expect us to win the Champions League. I know, I’m such a negative Nora. A big success would be getting out of the group in what is the maiden voyage in this competition for everyone at United from the boardroom to the kitman.
There is also the small matter of qualifying to compete in the Champions League again next season and fulfil the club’s ambitions for year on year.
We have learned this month, it will be far from the cake walk we may have considered in our more delirious moments, how narrow the margins are and where areas for improvement remain on and off the park.
This might be a timely reminder for everyone to learn not everything will be plain sailing and the graft, patience, grit and courage that will be required to repeat even last season’s achievements.
Can we do that? Of course we can. Stick together.
Keep On, Keepin’ On …
Michael Martin, @TFMick1892