As we approach the halfway point of the Premier League season, there are plenty of exciting storylines.
Liverpool almost having the title wrapped up by Christmas is the main one, obviously, while Leicester’s remarkable start and Sheffield United’s impressive early form also feature.
However, amid all this, Newcastle’s surprising upturn has flown under the radar. After starting the season as one of the favourites for relegation, the Magpies are just two points off fifth place after 16 games. All of this with Steve Bruce as manager, too.
So, how has he done it?
1. Defensive solidity
Newcastle have the best defensive record in the bottom half of the table, with 23 goals conceded, and three of their six wins have come to nil. It’s a pattern which has continued since last season, when seven of their 12 wins involved clean sheets. Packing the back-line might not be sexy, but it’s generally a good route to safety.
It’s even better when the solid defenders are also useful at the other end of the pitch – more than half of Newcastle’s league goals this season have been scored by members of their back five.
2. Inheriting quality
A new manager’s first season will generally be successful if he can latch on to what made his predecessor so good, and that’s been the case with Bruce. Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle were masters of getting the best out of limited resources and finding players who could play at as close to the upper limit of their ‘level’ as possible, and this has continued under Bruce.
Either that or Rafa was holding them back and things are only going to get better. I’m not going to rush to conclusions here.
3. Massively outperforming their numbers
Loathe as I am to point to expected goals numbers, they do at least go some way towards explaining Newcastle’s situation. Bruce’s men are outperforming their xG by 4.44 (scoring 17 goals from an xG of 12.56) and their xGA by an even greater margin (their expected goals against is 28). Only Leicester have outperformed in both areas by a greater margin.
Now, there are some Premier League clubs who have managed to outperform the numbers for extended periods, most notably the Burnley side which finished seventh in 2017-18, and Newcastle could end up being another of these. Alternatively, though, they might level out and leave that impressive start feeling like a distant memory. And it could happen without any major noticeable changes.
4. Allan Saint-Maximin
While xG isn’t the most traditionally ‘fun’ aspect of the football discussion, Saint-Maximin very much is. The Frenchman has been an absolute revelation, following a long line of mavericks including the likes of Laurent Robert and Hatem Ben Arfa. Bruce has looked at things relatively simply, identifying his qualities and allowing him to just keep providing his nonsense with little in the way of a handbrake.
When you’re paired with such an enigmatic team-mate, it can encourage you to try more inventive things yourself. Saint-Maximin’s absence over the Christmas period with a hamstring injury will provide a real test.
5. The ‘Steve Barnes’ novels
When we can’t entirely explain something logically, there’s normally another explanation hidden more deeply. In this instance, we’ve chosen to believe the Steve Barnes novels hold the key. Written by Bruce in the early part of his managerial career, ‘Striker!’, ‘Sweeper!’ and ‘Defender!’ follow a football manager-cum-detective named, you guessed it, Steve Barnes.
The books have been described by journalist Seamas O’Reilly as “[balancing] bone-warpingly tedious mystery plot[s] on a flimsy scaffold of footballing truisms and trite ruminations on modern life”, and if that isn’t enough to inspire a squad of rag-tag misfits we don’t know what is.