Newcastle’s complete extraordinary transformation with ‘more growth to come’

Thirty-eight points. It used to be the sum total of Newcastle’s ambitions for a season in the dog days of Mike Ashley’s reign. It was enough to secure them their Premier League status.

Thirty-eight points. It is Newcastle’s return in the first half of this season. If even the most rudimentary of maths shows it is an average of two per game, it promises to bring them Champions League football. Or, to put it in terms that were more familiar until recently, they are safe from relegation with 19 games to go.

If they are, in effect, twice as good as they used to be with roughly half a new team, and six players who predated their takeover and subsequent spending spree started the win over Fulham, there are other examples of the exponential improvement that threatens to carry them into the European elite.

The 38 points Newcastle have from 19 games is more than three times as many as the 11 they had taken at this stage last season. The 11 goals they have conceded is barely more than a quarter of the 42 they had let in by this point 12 months ago. Eddie Howe’s language tends to be unremarkable, but the numbers are.

“It’s been a really good first half of the season for us,” said the Newcastle manager. “We’ve improved from the start of the season to now. I think there’s still more growth in the team to come.”

Their rivals may deem that ominous. Manchester United are below Newcastle in the table, albeit only on goal difference, and many now argue Erik ten Hag’s team are in the title race. Few would make the same claim about Newcastle, even though they have the division’s best defensive record, one of only two unbeaten home records and are on its longest current undefeated run.

None of which is to say Howe’s more efficient side will go one better than Kevin Keegan’s entertainers. But if it now not about 38 points but 38 games, if there is a question if Newcastle can sustain their form over a whole year, there is also an answer: they already have. Over the equivalent of a season, their last 38 matches have produced 76 points. Newcastle had the second fewest points in all four divisions in 2021, ahead of only Burnley. The subsequent shift in fortunes is extraordinary.

“I’m very pleased with the players’ commitment and what they’ve delivered for the team so I think we’re in a good place,” added Howe, with typical understatement. “But the challenge only gets harder.”

That is true in one respect, if not another. Since they pulled away from the drop zone last season, Newcastle have not been burdened by the same pressure as their new peers. That will be conferred because swift progress generates expectations. But in one sense, standards could slip a little and it may not cost them.

History suggests 70 points will often bring a top-four finish; if so, Newcastle would only need another 32. Certainly Liverpool, who have a game in hand, and Chelsea, who do not, would need to make up 10 points to overhaul them. Tottenham are five adrift. Liverpool and Spurs are still to visit St James’ Park and, as things stand, a draw in each fixture would benefit Newcastle rather more.

Newcastle United’s Sven Botman and manager Eddie Howe celebrate (Action Images via Reuters)
Newcastle United’s Sven Botman and manager Eddie Howe celebrate (Action Images via Reuters)

That Fulham almost emulated Leeds, the last visitors to Tyneside, to secure a stalemate highlighted one challenge: underdogs will arrive determined to frustrate. Alexander Isak’s 89th-minute winner had a personal significance for a £62 million signing who had been sidelined by injury and a team who, with Callum Wilson on a goal drought and the possibility Miguel Almiron’s most potent spell in England is over, seem to have fewer scorers than their new rivals.

They have not conceded in the division since November, keeping five consecutive Premier League clean sheets for the first time. A defence that conceded 80 times in 2021 has been transformed. “It’s been the hallmark of our success this season to this point,” Howe added.

There is organisation and defiance amid excellent signings, but it was not merely Aleksandar Mitrovic’s bizarre penalty, chalked off because he struck the ball twice, that suggests the run could end. Most statistics indicate Newcastle have the fourth best defence, though Nick Pope has the best save percentage. Logically, they may not remain quite as frugal.

The loss of Bruno Guimaraes, their classiest passer, with a potentially serious ankle injury offered a different cause for concern. Shorn of the Brazilian, the midfield consists of players Howe inherited, in Sean Longstaff, Joe Willock and Joelinton, all improvers but none a playmaker. They have won 17 of 27 league games Guimaraes has started. That is top-four form. But then so is Newcastle’s record over the equivalent of an entire campaign.