Newcastle stormed past rivals to secure Champions League football last season but have lost three of their opening four games this term – so what’s caused the slump?
Three points from four games is not the start many expected at Newcastle, particularly after spending another £130m on transfers. Yet, there are reasons to suggest a slow start was likely and recapturing the consistency of last season may take time.
Firstly, Newcastle’s opening fixtures have been especially daunting. Each of their first four opponents finished in the top seven last season. Eddie Howe’s side collected only four points from these four games last season – just one more than their current total.
After facing ninth-placed Brentford in front of the Sky cameras this Saturday, that schedule is about to get a lot more favourable. None of Newcastle’s following five opponents finished in the top half last season – although these games will now be punctuated by midweek Champions League fixtures.
Consistency of selection, particularly in their defence, was one reason for the strength for Newcastle last term. The recent defeat to Brighton was just the eighth time since August 2022 that one of their first-choice back four has not started.
The decline, whenever changes have been necessary, has been striking – not just in wins, points and goals conceded, but also in shots faced, with over 50 per cent more conceded.
Newcastle rarely tweaked their pack last season: Arsenal were the only Premier League club to make fewer changes to their starting XI. But with those additional European games looming, variations to the line-up are more likely over the coming months, and Newcastle will need to adapt better.
New signings should help improve this. Howe has given most of them time to settle in, aside from Sandro Tonali. The Italian midfielder enjoyed an eye-catching debut but has been less effective in recent games.
Opponents have found it easier to play through Newcastle’s middle third this season. Currently, only Bournemouth have allowed opponents to complete more passes between their defensive and midfield lines, while just five clubs have had more players bypassed by opponent’s passes – two metrics Howe’s side were much higher in last season.
There have also been declines further forward. Surprisingly, Newcastle rank 18th for passes played into the box, having ranked second in the Premier League last season – suggesting that midfield combination has not yet found the right balance at either end.
However, despite this slow start, Newcastle’s underlying metrics suggest it is unlikely to lead to prolonged frustration. Highlighting a team’s expected goal difference – essentially, how many more goals a club is expected to score than their opponents – is a revealing way to look beyond results and tables and focus on performance.
Last season, Newcastle ranked second overall, one place above Arsenal and behind only Manchester City. A little more consistency in attack – where only one top-half side underperformed their goal return more than Newcastle – could have led to an even higher finish.
This season, despite the tough start, injuries and a new midfield combination, Newcastle still rank sixth overall in expected goal difference – above the likes of Tottenham and Manchester United. A more favourable set of fixtures over the coming weeks should improve their numbers further.
Additional European fixtures will be a new challenge to navigate. It will likely lead to more changes and new signings will be required to make an impact, which may take time. A repeat of last season’s finish will be tougher to secure, but there’s little to suggest Howe’s side won’t remain among those challenging for European football come May.