The Premier League table doesn’t look good for Newcastle United.
Rafa Benitez’s side are third-bottom with just one point from their opening four games.
A year ago, they were 10th after taking six points.
Admittedly, it’s early days. Unexpectedly, Watford, with a 100% record so far, are joint-top, while West Ham United – who spent £90million on seven players in the summer – are rock bottom after a far worse start to the campaign than Newcastle.
The table will change over the coming weeks and months, and Benitez, United’s manager, doesn’t think his team is far away from a first win.
“You can see the things we are doing, and we’re very close,” said Benitez. “When you’re very close, it’s just a case of one game and then the mood can go high.”
But how close? And how high (or low) can United go this season?
Here’s some of what we’ve learned about Newcastle so far this season.
1. It will get (a little) easier for United
Blame Mike Ashley. But also blame the fixture computer.
You can see the things we are doing, and we’re very close. When you’re very close, it’s just a case of one game and then the mood can go high.Rafa Benitez
The club, which Ashley insisted had to sell to buy in the summer, was handed a tough start to the season, and that’s reflected in its points haul.
So far Newcastle have played last season’s Premier League champions, away, and also the teams that finished third and fifth. Arsenal, sixth in 2017-18, are next.
That’s not a straightforward start. There are more winnable games against Crystal Palace and Leicester City on the horizon.
And Benitez is right. United have been close in every game, having lost to Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea by only one goal. They would have beaten Cardiff City had it not been for a late penalty save.
Newcastle haven’t been good enough with the ball, but they’ve proved stubborn without it.
That’s a platform on which Benitez can build as his new players adjust to life at St James’s Park.
Benitez wants to get on the front foot more over the coming weeks, and we’ll know more about the competitiveness of this team by the time the next international break comes around.
2. Kenedy needs to get into his stride – and quickly
Benitez doesn’t have too many match-winners in his squad.
By that I mean a player who can turn a game on its head all by himself. What Benitez had last season was a team that, more often than not, had to win games together – or not at all. It attacked together and defended together.
However, Jonjo Shelvey, is a potential match-winner. So too is Kenedy.
There were high hopes for Kenedy when the club re-signed him on loan from Chelsea this summer.
The winger was an influential figure on the pitch in the second half of last season. Capable of turning a game with a burst of pace, a touch, an unseen pass or a telling cross, he offered Benitez something different and started every game.
Kenedy hasn’t got going yet this season, and this has been exacerbated by Shelvey’s absence through injury.
Newcastle haven’t had a reliable outlet, someone to take the pressure off the defence, and they haven’t been able to hold on to the ball, which has kept coming back at them.
The sooner Kenedy finds his stride, and Shelvey returns, the better.
3. Benitez isn’t for turning
Once Benitez makes up his mind, it stays made up.
That’s what Rolando Aarons and Achraf Lazaar are discovering as they train with the club’s Under-23s at United’s Academy.
Aarons was left out of the club’s Premier League squad and Lazaar’s inclusion means little, given that United couldn’t name less than 25 players.
“They will stay over there (with the Under-23s),” said Benitez, bluntly.
Aarons, unable to play competitive senior football until next year, is facing up to four months in the wilderness – four years after breaking through at Newcastle.
The 22-year-old, a talented winger, may have thought he would be able to train his way back into Benitez’s plans, but there’s surely no way back for him so long as Benitez is in charge of the club.
Lazaar, a Benitez signing, will only be recalled to the first-team squad in case of an emergency.
Jack Colback found out last season that Benitez doesn’t change his mind once it’s made up, and Aarons and Lazaar need to leave St James’s Park for the sake of their careers.
4. Fernandez is easing the pain of Lejeune’s absence
Losing Florian Lejeune to a long-term knee injury was an unexpected blow for Benitez on the eve of the season.
The 27-year-old’s injury forced Benitez to go back into the transfer market for another defender, and he signed Federico Fernandez from Swansea City.
Benitez – who coached Fernandez while at Napoli – was, specifically, looking for Premier League experience.
Fabian Schar, signed from Deportivo La Coruna, will need time to adjust to the English top flight, but Fernandez is ready to go.
The 29-year-old impressed against Chelsea and Manchester City, and is looking an astute signing.
Lejeune, meanwhile, could be back in four months.
5. Rondon’s perfect for United’s system
Salomon Rondon was the one Benitez wanted in the summer transfer window – and it’s not hard to see why.
The striker, signed on loan from West Bromwich Albion, has been playing catch-up with his fitness, having only played one pre-season game.
Rondon, even while half fit, has looked a handful up front on his own.
The 28-year-old has often been isolated, but he’s held the ball up well and been careful with possession. Rondon’s also been a goal threat, and he set up DeAndre Yedlin’s strike against City with a superb cross.
Benitez, however, believes Rondon can offer a lot more.
“He’s doing well, but he can still improve,” said Benitez. “He will need match fitness, so we need to play games. He will continue training, and hopefully we will see the best of him in a few months.”