Two games, two defeats and a late game thriller vs. Southampton – and while it is too early to talk about a crisis, there are already some worrying signs that Newcastle are in for a tough campaign.
A home defeat in a high scoring thriller to West Ham was not a disaster, but the tame surrender to Aston Villa was worrying, and bookmakers have taken note. Punters checking out the best football apps when betting on NUFC season will find Steve Bruce’s side ranked among the top four contenders for relegation, and after the pleasant surprise that was the 2020/21 campaign, that’s a disappointing sign that the team are reverting to their familiar patterns.
The opening day can often throw up strange results, and the 4-2 defeat to a top-six side was not necessarily anything to worry about. But the Villa Park effort provided more concerning evidence as the defence once again looked fragile, and the positives generated by a strong attacking display early in the game evaporated in a limp second-half display.
To be fair to the Newcastle players, there wasn’t much they could do about Danny Ings’ spectacular opener, and they were on the rough end of some poor decisions, but they offered very little resistance after the break, mirroring the performance against West Ham, when a 2-1 lead at the interval was turned into a 2-4 deficit before the halfway mark in the second period.
It could be argued that this is still early days in the season and that there are extenuating circumstances, not least the injuries to first and second choice keepers Martin Dubravka and Karl Darlow. Bruce can also point to the upheaval caused by the summer’s transfer business, and to the fact that the key signing for the Magpies, Joe Willock, has yet to have an impact this time round.
Willock’s signing, for a £25 million fee, could turn out to be one of the best pieces of business conducted by a Newcastle manager in many years. The young attacking midfielder is a potential great, and a rising star in the international ranks, having turned out for England at under-19, under-20 and under-21 level, and his eight goals in 14 games on loan at the end of last season provided the sort of dynamic impetus that Newcastle have so often lacked.
But it may take more than Willock’s signing to help Bruce’s side avoid another relegation battle. The squad is still lacking depth, as seen from the last game. With Jonjo Shelvey injured and Isaac Hayden picking up a knee injury, the lack of high class alternative options in the squad is evident.
It is worth noting that the Magpies have registered only nine shots on target in three games so far this season. That lack of creativity up front is not unusual for a side managed by the cautious Bruce, but combined with their new-found defensive weaknesses, it could prove disastrous. Bruce rearranged the centre of defence for the Villa game, changing two out of three centre backs, but to little effect, and it seems that reinforcements may be required both in defence and up front.
The question is whether they will be able to complete any more business before the transfer window closes. The summer’s transfer budget was more or less used up on securing Willock’s signature, and the situation is further complicated by the fact that the goalkeeper situation means Bruce is considering naming four goalkeepers in the official 25-man squad, rather than the usual three, leaving him with even less room to bring in new players. A loan signing remains an option, or the possibility of moving on one of the existing squad to free up funds, but time is running out.
Two names have cropped up in connection with potential moves to the Magpies. Chelsea’s young defender Ethan Ampadu would be an impressive addition. He is raw and at the age of 20, may not be immediately ready to slot into the first team, but he would add depth to the squad, along with a degree of promise in the medium term, as there is no doubt about his ability.
The other option for Bruce to consider, if he is able to bring in another signing is Jordan Torunarigha. A product of the Hertha Berlin academy, Torunarigha is currently out of favour with the German club and could add pace and athleticism to the Newcastle back-line, while being left footed is another potential advantage, though his injury problems may be a concern.
At the moment, however, it seems as though the signing of Joe Willock is likely to be the only significant business for the Magpies this summer. Whether it will be enough remains to be seen.