Six Premier League games into 2016, Newcastle United’s home and away form could hardly be more contrasting.
In front of their own fans at St James’ Park, the Magpies have taken seven points from a possible nine, firing six goals from 56 shots, and averaging 58 per cent possession. They’ve possibly lacked cutting edge, but the likes of Aleksandar Mitrovic, Moussa Sissoko and Jonjo Shelvey are finally exciting their public.
However, on the road, Steve McClaren’s Newcastle have lost three out of three, scoring just once, despite managing 33 attempts and monopolising 47% of the ball. Of course, these statistics are down on United’s home record, but – at least at Arsenal and Watford – they’ve performed well enough to expect better than their current zero-point haul.
Everton was a return to the dark days of last season, but, set against another impressive NE1 display on Saturday with West Bromwich Albion allegedly in attendance, the key differences between Newcastle’s Gallowgate glee and trialling travels became apparent.
Upon signing for the Magpies, England winger Andros Townsend spoke of the size of the St James’ pitch – the joint-largest in the division – and how it would suit his style of play. The same can be said of Shelvey and Gini Wijnaldum, who look for space in order to pick passes.
Perhaps, on smaller surfaces, United are unable to play the expansive football that has so impressed on home turf in recent weeks.
For example, any number of Shelvey’s magnificent long-distance switches to Townsend and Daryl Janmaat against West Brom might well have bounced out for a goal kick at Goodison Park on Wednesday. Robbed of such an effective weapon, Newcastle weren’t able to muster such a plethora of opportunities.
Could it be more than a coincidence that the club’s two most disappointing road reverses have come within the tighter confines of Crystal Palace and Everton?
Certainly, beyond this pitch-related waffle, the role of Mitrovic within the Magpies’ modest successes shouldn’t be understated. Dropped at the Toffees, United were without a focal point – a vital piece to a puzzle that aims to allow Shelvey, Sissoko, Wijnaldum and Townsend the freedom to play.
The Serb returned to score at the weekend, and, while he continues to miss clear-cut chances, the 21-year-old contributed to a complete Newcastle performance.
With Mitrovic stretching the game towards the Baggies’ goal, and Cheick Tiote magnificently sweeping all before him in midfield, Rolando Aarons finally offered McClaren’s men some balance on the left.
The young winger is far from a natural defender, but his work at the back was tidy enough, and, unlike the injured Paul Dummett, Aarons was able to support Townsend going the other way. In similar clashes against bottom-half opposition, the Jamaican-born flyer might represent an interesting option from this deeper position.
And though United have left themselves with much to do away – where trips to Norwich City and Aston Villa will prove pivotal – their fate should still be decided in the North East.
Bournemouth, Sunderland, Swansea City and Palace are all still to cross the Tyne this term, and another four victories should put Newcastle within touching distance of safety.