Chapter Eight: Should Newcastle be panicking? Jurgen Klopp’s struggles, Manchester City being better without de Bruyne, and the return of Happy Gilmore and Shooter McGavin
Newcastle's defeat to Chelsea set off a tidal wave of panic among the supporters. I examine whether this is necessary, while also talking about Jurgen Klopp's recent difficulties and questioning whether Manchester City are better in de Bruyne's absence. Finally, two sports legends returned to the public eye last night, something that made me very happy indeed.
There’s a lot of stress around Newcastle at the minute, stress that has been heightened with the loss to Chelsea on Monday night combined with Fulham cutting the gap to the relegation zone to seven points, with the London team having a game in hand tonight against Burnley. Assuming they were to win that – and it’s by no means a guarantee they will, having won just three games all season – the gap would be down to four points, and with Fulham playing Sheffield United at home this Saturday, Newcastle could conceivably kick off against Manchester United on Sunday just one point off the relegation zone. This possibility has provoked panic among sections of the supporters and media, with accusations of the club ‘sleepwalking towards relegation.’ This brings to mind four questions: Are the club sleepwalking towards relegation? Have we reached the point where it’s time to panic? Should Steve Bruce be replaced? And, if he stays, can Newcastle do to prevent a third relegation in twelve years?
The first question has a simple answer: No, the club are not sleepwalking towards relegation. It’s easy to see why such fear is spreading through the supporters, but detaching emotion from the situation shows there are key differences to the last two relegations. The accusation most readily thrown at the club is that they are too slow to react, an accusation succinctly encapsulated in the phrase that adorned the banner hung outside St. James’ Park recently: ‘Act Late, Seal Your Fate.’ Yet, the club have acted, and are showing signs of having learnt from the previous relegations, even if they have yet to come to the same conclusion as the supporters. The first relegation under Ashley was epitomised by managerial uncertainty, with four different men – Kevin Keegan, Joe Kinnear, Chris Hughton and Alan Shearer – being in charge at various stages of the season. The second saw just one managerial change, that of Steve McLaren being replaced by Rafael Benitez, a move that ultimately proved unsuccessful despite recording three wins and three draws in Newcastle’s final six matches. It’s easy to see why the Newcastle hierarchy may see changing manager as being disruptive to the process, especially when there is no-one of Benitez’s stature and ability willing to step into the breach.
However, a failure to remove Bruce does not equal a failure to act, with new assistant manager Graeme Jones asserting influence on the team, and a new formation having brought two wins in the last four games, a more attacking and fluent style and more structure to the attack. Furthermore, one key weakness identified in the squad – the lack of a player able to run with the ball from central midfield – was also addressed, with Joe Willock being brought in on loan and impressing in his first two appearances. The fans’ desire for a striker signing went unaddressed, but it was a quiet transfer window – understandably, given the global pandemic being at a peak and income being down across the board – and the only striker with Premier League experience to be transferred into a club was Joshua King moving to Everton. Leaving aside that Everton are a vastly more attractive option than Newcastle, a striker with zero goals in twelve Championship games is unlikely to prove a game-changer for Newcastle. Fulham did sign a striker on loan, Josh Maja, but he is a gamble, with no top-flight goals in England before his debut brace, and only nine goals in forty-five league games for Bordeaux. On paper, Newcastle’s substitute goalscorer, Dwight Gayle, is a better bet to score goals than either and, at the time, Callum Wilson remained fit. A key weakness in the team addressed and a new voice on the management team that coincided with a much-improved style and two wins in four games – the club have acted, even if they are not the radical changes so many supporters desire.
With Callum Wilson out until approximately April 10th, missing games against Manchester United, Wolves, West Brom, Aston Villa, Brighton and Tottenham, and with Fulham picking up form, is it time for Newcastle to panic? Again, the answer is no. For one, panicking helps nobody in stressful circumstances, when calm heads are needed and unity is a strength. Panic leads to players blaming each other, to mistakes being made, tempers becoming frayed and a tricky situation becoming much more difficult to navigate. It’s important to remember that, while Fulham could potentially go to sleep on Sunday evening one point behind Newcastle, it’s asking an awful lot for a club who have won three matches all season to win three matches in eight days, especially with two of them – the games against Burnley and Sheffield United – being against teams also fighting for their lives, who have started to turn their own form around. Burnley beat Liverpool and Aston Villa just a few weeks ago, and have just thumped Crystal Palace; it is far from a foregone conclusion that Fulham pick up three points tonight. Indeed, should Fulham fail to beat Burnley and Sheffield United, Newcastle will go into Sunday’s game at least five points clear, with a chance to extend the gap to anywhere between six and ten points. Fulham would then be away to Crystal Palace, before playing Liverpool, Manchester City, Leeds, Aston Villa, Wolves, Arsenal and Chelsea. Over that same run, Newcastle are away to West Brom, Brighton and Burnley, and have home games against Villa, Spurs – both of whom will have played extra games beforehand, and will be less fresh - and West Ham. There is a real possibility Fulham could pick up zero points from that run, while Newcastle could pick up several, especially with the potential return of Wilson for the Burnley and West Brom games. If we start panicking, that simply won’t happen.
Would replacing Steve Bruce today be a good idea? Maybe. Sacking a manager isn’t a fix in itself; who you replace him with is equally as important, and there isn’t a lot of talent on the market who would be jumping to join Newcastle right now. The availability of Benitez is irrelevant, with his relations with Ashley too fraught to see an emotional and popular return. The likes of Allegri and Sarri are out of Newcastle’s league, while more realistic foreign coaches such as Klinsmann, Sanchez Flores or Villas-Boas would be a radical departure from Ashley’s usual appointments. In reality, Newcastle would be looking at the likes of Mark Hughes, Nigel Pearson, Frank Lampard and Eddie Howe, all failures themselves to various degrees, with Hughes and Pearson very similar to Bruce, Lampard recently sacked, unproven, inexperienced and unlikely to join Newcastle, and Howe relegated just last season. Indeed, with faint hope of a takeover still lingering, that uncertainty could prove a turn-off to any potential new managers, with it being common knowledge that the prospective buyers have a preference towards re-appointing Benitez. Since appointing Graeme Jones as assistant manager, Newcastle have improved, and are picking up points. Is it worth the upheaval of a new manager, with a new style, different preferences of player and tactics and increased uncertainty within the squad, given that we are already on an upwards trend? If a takeover was completed and Benitez was to return, or someone of similar stature was to come in, then yes, it would be worth it. If it’s to see Mark Hughes, Nigel Pearson or Eddie Howe come in, then it probably isn’t worth the bother.
Which leads us to the fourth question: What can Newcastle do to prevent a third relegation in twelve years? There are a few things that would increase our chances. The first is to stay calm. A defeat to Chelsea isn’t nice, but it’s also not unexpected. The game before, we beat Southampton with nine men, tearing them apart in the first half – and scoring even after Wilson’s injury – before defending with everything we had in the second. Prior to that, we were unlucky not to beat Crystal Palace, and gave a much-improved attacking performance even in defeat, and we beat Everton quite comfortably. One loss to a Chelsea team that spent £222m in the summer and were able to leave the likes of Kante, Chilwell, Ziyech and Pulisic on the bench will not define our season, nor should we let it detract from the recent progress. The second thing to do is to stick with the current formation. The players look comfortable in it, our attacking threat is much increased, Almiron is looking as effective as he has ever looked and, most importantly, it gives us a chance in most games. To keep chopping and changing strategy would further the sense of panic and confusion; the players need to learn and grow into this formation. What could be changed is the personnel. Perhaps starting Fraser ahead of Gayle next time out, or one of the Longstaff brothers. This formation seems tailor-made for Sean Longstaff to replace Shelvey, who is a match-winner on his day and a match-loser the other four out of five days. A front three of Almiron, Saint-Maximin and Fraser would be lacking in height and natural goal-scoring ability, but it would be filled with pace, danger and threat on the counter, before a substitute appearance from Gayle to grab a goal late on. There is no more effective weapon in football than pace; it’s time for Newcastle to use it.
It’s not a great situation for Newcastle right now, but it’s also not the catastrophe many painted following the Chelsea defeat. We are making progress, we are getting better, and we have the seven points on the board, while Fulham face two teams fighting for their lives ahead of perhaps the toughest run of fixtures any team has in the Premier League. It’s time to stay calm, to trust the players and to see what transpires over the next few weeks. Maybe, just maybe, the recent improvements will continue, and we’ll be in a much better position than the social media nihilists can imagine.
In a similar vein of over-reaction, there has been much criticism of Liverpool’s recent run of form, with some questioning whether Jurgen Klopp has lost his touch, whether he was losing the plot after some short-tempered interviews and, bizarrely, whether they were ever a great team after all. What a load of nonsense. After it came out last week that Klopp’s mother had passed away and he was unable to be with her or attend the funeral, he rightfully got the sympathy he deserved, and people – including myself – were able to empathise with why he had such little patience with inane questions, given everything we found out was going on with him. At a time of such grief, people deserve to be treated gently, even those in high-profile positions in the public eye. I can’t begin to imagine the pain Klopp must be feeling right now, and I wish him nothing but the best at such a difficult time.
As for the merits of his Liverpool team, I think people need to get a reality check. Liverpool performed at an incredibly high level for two seasons, winning the Champion’s League and coming second – with a points total that would’ve comfortably won the Premier League in any other year since its foundation – in 2018/19 and winning the title at a canter last season. It was inevitable that there would be a drop-off after such a Herculean effort, even without factoring in the incredible run of injuries in defence they have suffered this season. Yes, mistakes have been made; they should never have started the campaign with just three senior centre-halves, and they should never have played Jota and Salah in a Champions League dead-rubber match. However, their relative struggles this season – one played under abnormal circumstances, with the fixture list compressed and little pre-season, and without fans in attendance – do not detract from their outstanding achievements in the previous two campaigns in the slightest. Expect them to refresh the squad this summer, with at least one of the fabled front three moving on, then expect them to come back strong next season, with Klopp proving why he is – in my eyes at least – the best manager in world football.
Are Manchester City a better team without Kevin de Bruyne? It’s a question that seems strange to ask, given his undeniable ability with a football and his intelligence on the pitch. Yet, to look at the facts, they do seem to be more decisive without him in the team. Last season, where many declared him the best player in the league and where he had his best individual goals and assists return, Manchester City were miles off the pace in the title race. The season before, where he started just eleven matches, they finished with 98 points and held off Liverpool’s record-setting runners-up finish to win the league, with him playing just fifty minutes of the final five games. This season, Manchester City struggled for fluency early on, with de Bruyne’s first six games featuring draws against Liverpool and Leeds and defeats to Tottenham and Leicester. While he, and City, started growing in prominence before his injury, they have gone to another level in his absence, with Ilkay Gundogan stealing the show with a series of sensational performances, scoring six times and assisting twice in the five games de Bruyne has missed. While he is without question an elite player, could it be that the rest of the team have grown reliant upon him, and in his absence, they are forced to find solutions and as such become a better team? It’s an interesting question, and a very nice problem for Pep Guardiola to have. You can’t imagine a scenario where de Bruyne isn’t the first name on the team sheet, yet his absences have, over the last three seasons, coincided with Manchester City playing better, and winning more. De Bruyne is quality, but the facts are the facts.
Concluding this sports-centric edition of Disorderly Thoughts is the renewal of one of the greatest sports rivalries of all time. Two titans of their sport went head-to-head for the ultimate prize, resulting in the huge underdog pulling off one of the all-time great victories, one that will never be forgotten. Twenty-five years on, it was wonderful to see Happy Gilmore and Shooter McGavin reminisce with some light-hearted social media barbs. After such a testing year for so many people, a return to the course for these two sworn enemies could be just the tonic to lift some of the gloom. At the very least, it made me smile a lot, and I wanted to include the videos here so I can find them easily whenever I need a laugh.
Thank you for reading, and for your continued support. Please contribute to the conversation in the comments below.
Song of the Chapter:
Ghost Of Days Gone By
by Alter Bridge
Quote of the Chapter:
"When things are bad, we take comfort in the thought that they could always get worse. And when they are, we find hope in the thought that things are so bad they have to get better."
Malcolm S. Forbes