The nerves are starting to build among Newcastle fans. Our position hasn’t really changed over the past two weeks, as we have picked up two important wins.
However, there is no longer a buffer of teams between us and the bottom three. If Fulham do go on a run, we are most in danger of dropping into the relegation zone. That is a worry, but we are still in a strong position and are in the driving seat to secure survival.
The fixture lists of the teams at the bottom do mean that things could start to get worse before they get better. Steve Bruce needs to start making the unpopular decisions required to get our best team on the pitch and that begins with the goalkeeper.
Karl Darlow has been an excellent deputy goalkeeper, especially for the first few months of the season. However, his role in the squad is the number two goalkeeper. That was the accepted wisdom in the summer and now Martin Dubravka is back, he needs to be given the starting berth back.
This isn’t designed to be an attack on Darlow. He hasn’t made any huge errors and he is a solid Premier League goalkeeper, but he isn’t able to make the match-changing contributions that Dubravka can. Last season, he was the player of the season for good reason, as he arguably had the biggest impact on our season.
In addition to his imposing stature and great shot-stopping skills, Dubravka provides a sense of calm to the defence. He is much more vocal than Darlow, while he has a greater control of his area, especially at set pieces. We have been very vulnerable from set pieces in recent weeks, with Crystal Palace and Chelsea managing to score from these situations.
This is something that Dubravka could immediately improve, as he likes to have control of his box and relieve pressure on the team from set pieces. In his only appearance of the season, the experienced goalkeeper showed his class against Arsenal in the FA Cup. He kept a clean sheet in normal time and made several key saves. Given his lack of match practice, it was a stark reminder of his quality. It is surprising that Bruce hasn’t made the decision to bring him back yet.
One concerning stat regarding Darlow is that he is underperforming his post-shot expected goals (PSxG). This is a stat that measures the quality of each shot on target and calculates how many the average goalkeeper would concede from these shots.
Darlow has conceded 40 times from a PSxG of 35.5. He has conceded 2.5 more than the average Premier League goalkeeper would be expected to concede from the shots he has faced, as this excludes own goals and penalties. This ranks him 31st out of the 36 goalkeepers that have featured in the Premier League this season. When calculated on a per ninety basis, he ranks 16th of 21 goalkeepers that have played the qualifying minutes.
Last season, Dubravka finished 1st out of 37 Premier League goalkeepers to play in terms of PSxG, as he prevented 10 more goals than would be expected from the shots he faced. This included a few notable errors, highlighting that he is one of the best and most consistent goalkeepers in the division. On a per ninety basis, he ranks second on this metric, trailing only Hugo Lloris.
These stats provide a real concern about Steve Bruce’s decision to retain faith in Karl Darlow. He has done well and surpassed expectations, but the truth is, he still ranks as one of the least reliable goalkeepers in the league. When we have a keeper that was performing as one of the league’s best last season, it is crazy to continue with the current hierarchy.
The transfer window is now closed. We can’t find a replacement for Callum Wilson. However, we can bring one of the Premier League’s best goalkeepers in the league back into the starting eleven. It won’t help us fill the void of Wilson’s goals, but we may be able to keep a few more out, especially with Dubravka’s dominance at set pieces.
It is a decision that needs to be made. No other manager would continue to make this choice. It is time for Bruce to prove that he has the backbone to make this harsh call.