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17 Aug 2018

Newcastle United: Was the Tottenham performance cause for optimism?

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The same side that finished last season well. 

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Defensive structure

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A goal for Joselu

REUTERS/Ed Sykes

Transfer deadline day was grimly emblematic for Newcastle United. Mike Ashley made a significant investment not in the club or players, but high street chain House of Fraser.

Ending the transfer window with a net profit, while promoted clubs like Fulham and Wolves showed a startling level of ambition and fellow should-do-better mid-table stalwarts like Everton and West Ham were raiding clubs like Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund and Lazio for talent. 

The opening day, too, set a miserable tone for the season to come: fans protesting outside Sports Direct on Northumberland Street against an owner reluctant to back the best manager they could possibly hope to have. 

But while they lost to Tottenham, there were plenty of positive signs from the performance. Newcastle might not be all bad this season.

The same side that finished last season well. 

Newcastle have undoubtedly failed to build on last season's overachievement, but their first XI put in a number of encouraging performances in the spring and there was a continuity here, the only absentee the injured Florian Lejeune. 

Retaining Kenedy, now on a season-long loan from Chelsea, and goalkeeper Martin Dubravka permanently from Sparta Prague, were important. The two January arrivals were vital to Newcastle's sharp turn away from the relegation zone, and were particularly impressive in cornerstone wins over Manchester United, Arsenal and Leicester.

REUTERS/Ed Sykes

Yet again, Dubravka made a stunning reflex save to deny former magpie Moussa Sissoko from close range, and Kenedy looked match-fit and eager to make things happen once again. 

The Brazilian winger's performance will, unfortunately, be defined by his abysmally heavy touch when through on goal, wasting a golden opportunity to equalise, but that was an outlier to an otherwise lively performance. 

Not since Hatem Ben Arfa have Newcastle had a player so capable of running with the ball, driving at defenders and making things happen. It didn't come off for him here, but he'll have more fortune soon enough.

Defensive structure

In terms of personnel, there was one particular cause for concern: Ciaran Clark partnering Jamaal Lascelles in the centre of defence. The Irishman has been a good servant for Newcastle and he was useful in their promotion from the Championship, but with everybody fit he would only be their fifth choice centre back, with the arrival of Fabian Schar and Federico Fernandez this window.

But this wasn't too much of a problem against Tottenham, which is the sign of a good coach who can organise a structured back four no matter who slots in. This has been the case throughout Rafael Benitez's career, and it's no different at Newcastle.

REUTERS/Ed Sykes

They did concede twice, but neither goal was a damning indictment on their defence. They could have dealt with Christian Eriksen's corner better, but were unfortunate the ball crossed the line by millimeters. Dele Alli has scored that exact far post header against better teams than Newcastle - he got two of them in one game against Chelsea, for example.

With wonderfully creative players like Alli and Eriksen, and the most potent striker in the league in Harry Kane, Tottenham have the ability to tear opponents apart, but Newcastle kept their opportunities limited and left them frustrated. Kane, in particular, was completely nullified. 

A goal for Joselu

The Spanish striker can't have been faulted for his work rate last season, and his movement and hold-up play was often an asset, but his finishing was lacking. Four goals in thirty league appearances is testament to that. 

But he's off to a good start in this campaign, taking just eleven minutes to get off the mark. He placed his header well against Tottenham though credit must also go to Matt Ritchie's perfectly delivered cross.

REUTERS/Scott Heppel

They've invested in this area, but neither Yoshinori Muto nor Salomon Rondon look likely to hit double figures either if their recent record is anything to go by. The biggest area Newcastle can improve on is in the centre forward position. 

The midfielders and Ayoze Perez will all chip in with a fair share of goals, but they would improve exponentially with a striker capable of scoring 15 or 20 goals in a campaign. It's a big ask for any of them, but the confidence an opening day goal instills might just help Joselu contribute more this time around.