Newcastle United's 'criminally under-funded' midfield, Dwight Gayle's failed audition & Jonjo Shelvey justified – Liam Kennedy's SEVEN Magpies takeaways
Twelfth place. Forty five points. Cup your ear and you can probably hear it, too – ‘what were you all complaining about?’ goes the cry from the blindingly oblivious, the deliberately antagonistic and the casual watchers at the punditry bar.
Well, what were we all complaining about? Was it the two wins in 22 in a winter of discontent or the clueless tactics (up to the addition of Graeme Jones)? Was it the dressing-room disharmony, the leaks and the in-fighting which spread across column inches? Was it the eye-wateringly bad performances, the weekly humiliations, the ‘stick it in reverse’ mentality that saw United slip from a relative safety to the relegation trenches? Or was it things like the Carabao Cup run that papered over the cracks and ended in embarrassment? A lot of it, actually, goes back to the very public jibes at outsiders by the manager, whose digs, whether meant for the media or not, were taken to heart by the rank and file who spend their hard-earned cash on black and white.
In the end, though, United finished 17 points above the relegation zone, remarkably needed just one point after the Brighton debacle to survive and outstretched last season’s similarly underwhelming season a point and a place better off.
As Steve Bruce so eloquently put it – 12th is no cause for celebration, but it might be. We all know this season was not what it seemed. And moving forward that has to be cause for concern.
But, this is no season review, this is just a seven-point look over a final day which delivered yet another three points – so, here’s the best bits.
Skipper Shelvey justifies his place – finally
Any regular readers of my column will know that I’ve been critical of Jonjo Shelvey for his lack of mobility and perceived lack of effort in games. In the last two, that’s gone out the window.
Shelvey was brilliant at Craven Cottage, a trajectory that started at St James’ Park against Sheffield United.
Ultimately, this is all Newcastle fans crave. They know Shelvey can perform at this level, but want to see it more consistently, not just in pockets and bursts.
The ‘no strikers’ approach – did it work?
It was a new one and it is hard to complain against given United got the result.
However, I do have a complaint. It made Allan Saint-Maximin the only, and absolute point of attack and it took away from his game somewhat, as ASM probably put in his most low-key show in quite some time.
It suited Miguel Almiron, mind, who could buzz and be a nuisance much further up the park than usual.
Is an Emil Krafth re-evaluation needed?
It was only Fulham and Sheffield United, yes, but the Swede has looked at home in the United backline for the first time since signing in the summer of 2019.
On the right of a back three he has been decent of late. Maybe, just maybe, he can add value to the squad like the injured Joelinton has done, too. It could well be too early to make such a bold call, as it may well also be with the Brazilian forward.
Criminally under-funded department needs addressed
While you can go through the United team and point to five or six players who have made key contributions in recent weeks, let’s not kid ourselves and just be honest – Joe Willock has been the architect of Newcastle’s late minor surge up the standings.
His goals, energy, ability to run with the ball at speed, nuisance factor and recoveries have added a dynamic not seen in the United midfield for years, if ever actually, he is pretty unique.
Will he be at United next season? The odds would say no due to price and budget restrictions. The only positive I can take from that is hopefully the United decision-makers realise it is in midfield, a criminally under-funded department since 2016, where the Magpies’ biggest flaws lie. And some movement in that department could see the team transformation many yearn for. Apart from probably those decision-makers, of course.
Failed auditions should see the final curtain for Dwight Gayle
Gayle was one of a number of players who had disagreements with Bruce this season over playing time. He wanted in when United were not scoring, despite the fitness of Callum Wilson. But when he actually got in, when needed as Wilson was out, he did absolutely nothing with his opportunity.
I think Gayle is OK, but can United upgrade on their Wilson contingency plan? They have to.
This was not Sean Longstaff’s best game in black and white, I mean purple, but he stood out like a sore thumb in many ways.
He looked like a player full of running, energy and aggression, charging down the opposition and making many a break forward, see Willock’s goal for a key example of that.
This was a player with a point to prove and long may that approach continue. There’s a decent Premier League player in there, and in the right team and system, there’s a whole lot more improving to be done.
We all know Andy Carroll is likely to leave, but what of Federico Fernandez, Fabian Schar and fan favourite Matt Ritchie? Will any of that trio start the campaign with the Magpies?
After the end to this season, I sincerely hope they all do. Ritchie sounds like the most likely to leave, and any sale could free up funds, but he’s proven crucial for United in their run-in, and would be very difficult to replace.