Norwich City travel to St. James’ Park this weekend to face Newcastle United in the Premier League (Saturday 3pm KO).
Ahead of the game, canaries.co.uk spoke to The Athletic’s Newcastle correspondent, Chris Waugh, to understand how the club are getting points from seemingly impossible positions, discuss the January signings, and much more.
canaries.co.uk: Despite being 14th, Newcastle are only four points off fifth, so how would you sum up the season so far?
CW: It’s been a turbulent season. At the start of the season, if you’d offered the fans the position they’re in now with 30 points by the end of January they would have taken it. Newcastle have consistently been in relegation battles or relegated in the last few years by this stage of the season. They haven’t been in such a healthy position.
Points-wise it’s been a successful season and Steve Bruce, who wasn’t necessarily welcomed with open arms, has done a very good job in difficult circumstances. It was a difficult start to the season and there were a few chastening defeats such as Norwich away and Leicester away, but on the whole, they’ve been solid rather than spectacular, grinding out results. It’s been a positive first 24 games of the season.
canaries.co.uk: Have the majority of fans come around to having Bruce in charge, or is there still a feeling that Rafael Benitez should have stayed at the helm?
CW: Rafa’s legacy is still evident and the admiration from fans is still there. There wasn’t anger directed towards Bruce, more towards the owners. There certainly has been a mellowing over time. I wouldn’t say he’s got full acceptance yet but there have been a few chants of Bruce’s name in the away end and even at home in the FA Cup games.
Fans accept that he’s here and most of them would say he has done a good job in difficult circumstances, so the managerial situation feels a lot more settled than it did earlier in the season.
canaries.co.uk: Leicester and Manchester United recently beat Newcastle. What did they do well to win those games?
CW: Leicester was a strange one because Newcastle had four injuries in the space of 15 minutes. They were already 2-0 down before that happened and there were a couple of defensive mistakes in that, but the game was killed as a contest when that happened.
Man United was a strange one. Bruce rotated over the festive period and Newcastle were caught on breaks. When they’re vulnerable, it sounds strange but it’s essentially when they have the ball, attack more and commit bodies forward.
Their strength is being very disciplined without the ball. The three centre-backs sit into a 5-4-1 and if they let the opposition have the ball they’re very good at preventing them from creating too many opportunities but when they get dragged into a more open match and the onus is on them to be on the front foot, that’s when they’re vulnerable.
At Man United and Leicester, they got dragged out of position and the game got too open for their liking, that’s when they struggle.
canaries.co.uk: Martin Dubravka has got the team out of a few sticky situations. Who are the other key players?
CW: Dubravka has definitely been a key player defensively. There have been a couple of mistakes he’s made, but overall the amount of points he’s saved for Newcastle has kept them in games.
There’s been something very unsustainable seemingly about the way Newcastle have played yet they have sustained it. Their forwards don’t score many goals and the defenders have scored half of their Premier League goals. Dubravka has had to keep them in games when they have conceded opportunities.
Another very important player is Allan Saint-Maximin. They’ve only won once when he hasn’t featured this season. He’s had a few injuries but when he plays Newcastle’s record is excellent. They win more, score more and concede less. Although he’s only got one goal and one assist, he has so much importance to the side.
Because Newcastle sit so deep without the ball and then look to counterattack, he and Miguel Almiron are so important for carrying the ball up the field and winning corners and free-kicks or getting Newcastle in positions to score. I’d say he’s the main attacking player and Dubravka is very important in goal.
canaries.co.uk: You mention the forwards haven’t scored too many goals – just four between them. Is the January signing of Valentino Lozaro going to make the difference?
CW: I think so. There’s a chance they could still get a striker by the deadline but they’re waiting to see if anything comes up in that regard.
As for Lozaro, he will add an attacking impetus without being an out and out striker. He’s more of someone who can play as a wing-back or right sided forward, but what he does do is bring extra pace, taking a bit of burden off Almiron and Saint-Maximin. Hopefully, he’ll be able to create chances for the forwards.
They are lacking an out and out goalscorer and that is their primary issue, so they’ll need the likes of Lozaro and co to start contributing a few more goals because they don’t have the ten or 15 goal per season striker.
canaries.co.uk: As for the other January signings, what do you make of Nabil Bentaleb and Danny Rose?
CW: Rose hasn’t been confirmed yet, but it should be by the end of today if not tomorrow. Newcastle weren’t looking for a left wing back at the start of the window because they had Jetro Willems and Paul Dummett but they lost both of those to serious injuries.
Rose is an interesting one. With his experience and the fact he’s 29 years of age, he’s older than the type of player Newcastle would usually go for but he’s ready made for the Premier League, so he’ll strengthen them. He’s not someone who needs time to adapt and learn about the league.
Bentaleb has Premier League experience too and has played in the Champions League with Schalke. He gives them another option in midfield and can be a bit box to box. He’s very tidy on the ball. He’s had a few disciplinary problems, but I think Bruce has wanted someone with a bit more energy and he should strengthen them there.
canaries.co.uk: Questions were asked of his attitude while at Tottenham Hotspur. Do you think Bruce will be comfortable with managing that?
CW: Bruce was asked about Bentaleb being a maverick and his response was ‘well if he’s a maverick then bring on the maverick.’ His argument is that he likes people who voice opinions. Danny Rose, not to the same degree, is also very vocal in his opinions. He’s very forthright in what he believes, and I think Bruce likes players who are characters.
Newcastle need a bit more leadership, so it’s a delicate balance to strike. Bentaleb has a point to prove and if he wants to earn a permanent move then he needs to make sure he doesn’t fall out of line. Bruce, given his experience with managing players, he isn’t daunted by that and sees it as a positive to have a few different personalities in the dressing room.
canaries.co.uk: Newcastle’s expected goals and points statistics aren’t flattering but they’re still drawing and winning games. Do you see that good fortune continuing?
CW: I don’t think it can, but I’ve thought that for a while. It seems unsustainable but they are sustaining it. At Everton, they were totally outplayed for 93 minutes and then scored twice when they hadn’t looked like scoring at all.
Away at Sheffield United, they won 2-0 and were completely dominated for most of the game. They’ve had a few home matches when that’s been the case including Chelsea at home when they won 1-0 in injury time.
I don’t think it is something they can rely on, they’re going to have to score more goals and create more chances but at the moment it is working for them and they do have this resilience; this ability to stay in games.
The additions Bruce has made is an attempt to address that. They haven’t signed the goalscorer they need yet, but they have strengthened the other positions and will hopefully start creating more chances.
canaries.co.uk: Will the strength of Saturday’s starting lineup be affected by the FA Cup replay against Oxford United on Tuesday, do you think?
CW: Bruce has said all along that he’s prioritising the FA Cup and he has played strong teams so far in the three games Newcastle have played in the competition. I do expect a strong one on Tuesday, but if Newcastle beat Norwich, they’ll be on 33 points after 25 games.
From then on, they’re almost there, a win or two away from being safe, so I think he’ll target this first. There have been quite a few injuries in the squad so that will affect it, but I do expect the likes of Saint-Maximin, Almiron and Joelinton to play. Lozaro may make his debut.
I think it will be as strong as he could put out for Saturday, then he’ll assess the replay against Oxford afterwards.
canaries.co.uk: Score prediction for this weekend?
CW: I’ll go positive from a Newcastle point of view. I’ll go for 2-1 Newcastle.
canaries.co.uk: Thanks for taking the time to talk and no thanks for the prediction, Chris!
You can follow Chris on Twitter @ChrisDHWaugh.