When the fixtures were released for the 2017/18 season, our opening run of games looked pretty winnable. This handed us an opportunity to start well, but simultaneously piled the pressure on us to hit the ground running on our return to the Premier League.
Defeat at home to Spurs was anticipated on the opening day, but if someone had offered us three wins from our next five we’d have bitten their hand off – and that’s exactly what we’ve gone on and done.
Sunday’s defeat to Brighton was a sobering moment, but there’s still several reasons to be upbeat the season ahead of us:
It’s still our best start in years
With 9 points on the board after 6 games, this has still been our best start to a Premier League season since 2011/12 – the famous season where Ba, Ben Arfa, Cisse, Cabaye and Coloccini helped us to an incredible 5th place finish.
I’m not for a second suggesting this season will turn out similarly, but with 9 points on the board we’ve already got almost a quarter of the points needed to ‘secure’ Premier League safety, with the magic 40 points often being seen as the promise land for newly promoted clubs.
It’s frustrating that defeats have came against Huddersfield and Brighton – two fellow newly promoted clubs – but we should be buoyed by the fact we have out-fought and out-smarted established Premier League sides in wins West Ham, Swansea and Stoke. We might lack match winners and cutting edge in areas, but those wins were a real indicator that we have more than enough to compete in this league.
As The Chronicle’s Mark Douglas recently revealed, no team has EVER been relegated in the Premier League era after earning 9 points from their first give games. This tally is also more than any newly promoted club has racked up over the last decade in their opening five league matches.
Sunday’s defeat may have seen old doubts resurface, but these are pretty promising stats.
Rafa’s remained and he’s fully focused on football
The summer was another frustrating window for Newcastle fans and most importantly Rafa Benitez, but despite fears he would walk or be poached by a rival club, he has remained and sounds fully focused on football matters.
He has reiterated his desire to concentrate on events on the pitch, appearing committed to the cause, ready to go with what he’s got, develop his players to the best of his ability and keep us in the Premier League.
Our squad is limited, with the lack of quality signings leaving areas of our team looking a little worse for wear, but this frailty is compensated by having a world class manager like Rafa Benitez at the helm. His pragmatic style and tactical know how will make us difficult to play against and hard to beat.
I don’t anticipate a Rafa Benitez team being walked all over like Pardew and McClaren’s teams may have been in the past.
Some of our new signings look surprisingly good
You hope to see marquee signings and exciting talents come through the door when the summer window opens, and although fans were left underwhelmed by the majority of our six summer buys, a few of them are looking more and more like great pieces of business.
I knew next to nothing about Mikel Merino when he arrived on loan from Borussia Dortmund, but six games into his Newcastle career and I am already pretty certain we’ve picked up a gem of a player. It’s easy to get carried away too early, but everything about this kid tells me he’s a top talent. He plays with his head up, can pick a pass, carry the ball and doesn’t shirk a tackle or his defensive duties either. He plays with such elegance and, for a 21-year old, has shown real maturity both on and off the pitch.
The there’s Florian Lejeune. He’s not featured since the opening day of these season so it’s difficult to make an real judgements on him yet, but the early signs are very good. He showed his class over pre-season, looking like the ball playing centre-back who’d bring an air of calm and quality to the back line and also kept Harry Kane quiet during an assured first half display against Spurs on the opening day. It was disappointing to see him get injured after such a promising start to life at St. James’ Park for the Frenchman, but I look forward to seeing him back on the pitch, having high hopes for the £8.7m summer signing.
Christian Atsu was the first of our summer buys and, after a mixed season in the Championship, was a player several fans thought would struggle to cut it in the top flight. I don’t expect him to pull up too many trees, but he’s looked a player re-born at times this season. He was our most effective attacking player against Spurs on the opening day, caused Pablo Zabaleta all sorts of problems against West Ham – also laying on the assist for Joselu’s goal – and scored his first ever Premier League goal in the 2-1 win over Stoke last time out at St. James’. He is a confidence player, which is a concern, but with electric pace and the backing of Benitez to develop his game, he’s looking very good business at £6m and is repaying the faith Rafa has put in him.
The likes of Manquillo and Joselu were seen as Premier League outcasts who couldn’t cut it at Sunderland and Stoke respectively, but they’ve shown enough so far to suggest they can do ‘a job’ in the team. Manquillo has done a decent job in Yedlin’s absence and Joselu’s all round play has been promising, having led the line well more often than not. You have to hope he’ll start converting his chances sooner rather than later, however half the battle is having the chances in the first place. I’m hopeful things will click for him if he can just re-find some confidence in front of goal.
This team won’t fold likes others have in the past
Finally, I don’t see this Newcastle team letting their heads drop and hiding like we’ve seen previous sides do over the years.
As Benitez has recently alluded to, we have players who understand what it means to play for Newcastle United. Players who respect the badge and care about the club, willing to fight for the fans week in week out.
This has been evident at times this season too. We battled with 10 men and never stopped running against a classy Tottenham side, who eventually broke us down despite our efforts. We out-fought West Ham in every department, dug in at Swansea for a hard earned away win and responded to Shaqiri’s equaliser against Stoke, going on to win the game 2-1 when previous NUFC sides may have felt sorry for themselves after missing several chances to put them out of sight. Even at Brighton on Sunday we didn’t let our heads drop after going a goal down.
Admittedly our lack of quality let us down over the weekend and we were unable to get back into the game, but unlike previous seasons, I doubt we’ll be putting defeats down to a lack of effort or enthusiasm this season.