As we approach the home straight of the 2019-2020 English Premier League football season, the general consensus among fans is that Newcastle United have done acceptably well for the main part. The team has made it to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup for the first time in over a decade (and could yet shock the world by winning it), and relegation from the division is an unlikely prospect. Given the grim prognosis of Newcastle’s fortunes that were circulating at the start of the season, most fans would have taken survival and a good cup run if it were offered to them back then.
Despite that, there are some fans who still bemoan the team’s weaknesses, and in particular, the difficulties that the club has had in finding someone who can put the ball in the back of the net regularly. Defensively the team has exceeded expectations, but the lack of goals going in at the other end has been a disappointment. You know something’s wrong when the BBC is openly questioning what record £40m signing Joelinton actually brings to the team if it isn’t goals. Also, as much as all Magpies fans desperately wanted it to work out, it’s time to admit that Andy Carroll’s return to St. James’ Park has been a flop. In the twelve games that the injury-prone forward has appeared in, he’s yet to score once. It will be time to let him go in the summer, and that will probably be the end of the once-feared striker’s career.
For fans who are more than thirty years old, the memories of Kevin Keegan’s swashbuckling Newcastle United team of the 1990s still loom large. Many a parent, now in their 30s and 40s, will have raised their Newcastle United-supporting children on stories of how the club should have won the Premier League title back in the 1995-1996 season, and not without justification. The whole country was in love with Keegan’s entertainers back then, and was willing the Magpies on to lift the trophy. It wasn’t to be. The attacking football Keegan encouraged was a joy to watch, but left the team wide open at the back. A couple of poor defensive performances, coupled by Sir Alex Ferguson getting so far into Keegan’s head that he lived there rent-free for a while, was enough to steal the title away to Old Trafford. Newcastle has never been near the summit since, but some fans still believe the team of that time represents the ‘Newcastle way’ of playing.
Playing attacking football is always appreciated by fans, but the sad truth of the matter is that the game has changed since the mid-1990s. You can’t just run at teams and hope to wear them down with wave after wave of attack anymore – you’ll leave too many holes open at the back, and a good side will tear you apart. Even if Steve Bruce did decide to go for the jugular with the current generation of Newcastle players, he doesn’t have the right men to do it with. Jonjo Shelvey is not David Ginola. Joelinton is not Les Ferdinand. Without meaning any disrespect to him, he’s probably not even Faustino Asprilla. There isn’t a figure like Philippe Albert in the heart of Newcastle’s defense to keep things in order when everyone else goes forward. This team isn’t built to attack and doesn’t have the right players to go on the hunt in the way that the much-loved team of the past did.
As it will be summer before we know it, there’s an opportunity there for Bruce to move his chess pieces around, and reconfigure the team if he wants to do. How far should he roll the dice, though? To use a metaphor that’s probably more apt, how many times should he spin the reels of the online slots game that is his Newcastle United team? You never know quite what you’re going to end up with when you play games on online slots websites. You could be a winner Playing Starburst, or you could be a loser for twenty spins on the bounce. One could argue that Bruce has already bet heavily and lost by spending so much money on Joelinton – money that Mike Ashley would probably loathe to spend again. When it comes to success and failure in the Premier League, it’s the highest-stakes game of online slots anyone could ever play. Win, and the TV prize money and associated financial rewards seem to get larger every year. Lose, and the sudden sharp drop in income could push most clubs to the verge of bankruptcy.
Considering what’s at stake – and don’t make the mistake of thinking that Newcastle won’t be considered candidates for relegation again next season even if they do manage to survive this term – should Bruce really be trying his luck by going out and buying new strikers, or should he strengthen the defense and midfield instead? A striker’s first season in England is always difficult. Joelinton may come good next term. Dwight Gayle has proven that he can score goals in the Premier League, and the fact that he isn’t being given a chance to do so is something of a mystery. Carroll should move on, but perhaps that will give Yoshinori Muto or Elias Sorensen the chance to show the fans what they can really do. As an outside bet, Daniel Sturridge is a free agent, and his betting ban will expire by the summer. He would likely relish the chance to prove that he can still play in the Premier League, and he’d probably consider a move to Newcastle United. If Sturridge could replace Carroll for free, Newcastle would have money to spend elsewhere – and it’s elsewhere that improvements are more necessary.
It’s easy to point to the strikers when things aren’t going well for a football team, but strikers are usually only as good as the service they get. Newcastle might be goal-shy, but they’re also solid. That’s a good foundation for Steve Bruce to build from – and adding more strikers probably isn’t the right way to build. Every Magpies fan would like to see their team scoring three goals per game, but that isn’t a realistic prospect for this season or next. Build the defenses well, and the attack will come. Fans are probably going to have to be patient for another season.