Rewind a few weeks and it looked as if Newcastle had seen the light at the end of a long and gloomy tunnel. After a run of 11 games without a win in all competitions, nine of which were defeats, they went to Goodison Park and beat Everton 2-0. “They showed more fighting spirit, more concentration and more motivation,” said a frustrated Carlo Ancelotti as Newcastle moved nine points clear of the relegation zone. Steve Bruce’s side had also shown some fighting spirit in their previous game, firing off 15 shots in the second half against Leeds, only to lose 2-1. Finally, they were displaying some attacking verve.
The team’s inability to create chances had heaped the pressure on to Bruce, even if Mike Ashley’s seemingly everlasting presence was always likely to prevent a sacking, so a thoroughly deserved victory at Goodison was a bolt from the blue. Though a home defeat to Crystal Palace followed, Newcastle again dominated the shots department, with 21 to six, before they pulled off a remarkable 3-2 win over Southampton with nine men.
It was no coincidence that Allan Saint-Maximin made his long-awaited return to the starting XI for the victory over Southampton. Very much the maverick in an otherwise ordinary squad, he set up both goals as Newcastle raced into an early two-goal lead. Miguel Almirón scored twice as he continued his personal renaissance, and things were looking up, at least until Callum Wilson was forced off through injury.
Wilson was Newcastle’s one reliable source of goals. They had scored 22 goals in the league before his injury and he had either scored or set up 68% of them. So the news that he would be missing for around six weeks was a massive blow. Newcastle have picked up just one point from their three matches since his injury, although their performances against Chelsea, Manchester United and Wolves suggested they would be able to hold off Fulham’s steady challenge and stay up.
That was until Almirón and Saint-Maximin were forced off during their 1-1 draw with Wolves at the weekend, with Bruce confirming that both will miss the rest of the month. Neither of them is particularly prolific – Almirón has four goals and one assist to his name this season, with Saint-Maximin providing two goals and three assists – but their absence, coupled with that of Wilson, leaves Newcastle’s squad in disarray for the coming weeks. Bruce is now picking from a squad in which Jeff Hendrick is the top scorer, with two goals, and Joelinton has the most assists, with just two.
The injuries could not really have come at a worse time. Bruce would have seen Newcastle’s next three games before the international break – trips to relegation rivals West Brom and Brighton, and a home tie with a Villa side who are struggling for consistency – as opportunities to pick up points and pull clear of Fulham.
Without Wilson, Almirón and, perhaps most importantly, Saint-Maximin, it’s hard to see where Newcastle will find a goal, let alone a win. The squad has been stripped of 59% of their goals and 60% of their assists, so reverting to a tiresome and tedious type is the only real option available to Bruce in the coming weeks. Avoiding defeat to West Brom and Brighton in particular will be pivotal, but managing that feat without their three most dangerous players will be easier said than done.
It is difficult to overstate how important these players are for Newcastle. Almirón had a torrid start at the club, failing to score in his first 24 league appearances and registering just one assist in that time, but his workrate and pace have always been assets. Newcastle are much more likely to win when he plays. In fact, their win rate goes up from just 25% without him in the starting XI to 32.3% with him.
Saint-Maximin is even more important. His end product often leaves a lot to be desired, but his direct dribbling gives Newcastle a massive boost in every game he plays. He is the vertical thrust to a side that otherwise plays in deep, horizontal lines. Of the 18 wins Newcastle have managed since the start of last season, 14 have come in the 35 matches Saint-Maximin has started. That’s a pretty impressive 40% win rate with him in the team. By contrast, the team have won just four of the 29 matches he has not started (13.7%). Not only do Newcastle score considerably more goals with Saint-Maximin starting (1.23 per game up from 0.76) but they concede fewer (1.4 down from 1.83).
His presence in the team could be the difference between staying up and going down. Newcastle’s points per game of 1.43 with Saint-Maximin in the team would equate to 54 points over a 38-game season. That would have been enough for a top-half finish last season. However, their average of 0.69 points per game in his absence would equate to just 26 points over a full season, which would have ranked 19th in the table last season, eight points below relegated Bournemouth and Watford.
Newcastle need their attacking trio back as soon as possible if they are to beat the drop. In truth, just remaining out of the relegation zone until they return would be a victory of sorts. Fulham’s fixtures over the next few weeks are very tough – they play Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester City in the next 10 days – but Newcastle also have to be wary of West Brom. If Sam Allardyce’s side were to beat Newcastle on Sunday, they would be right back in the mix. Fighting off two teams who are clawing together some semblance of form is exactly what Newcastle want to avoid.
It won’t be pretty, but playing for a point at the Hawthorns is probably the smart place to start in a run of matches that could make or break Newcastle’s season.