Most everything from the New Year’s match fixtures went Arsenal’s way. The Gunners won 4-2 over Brighton, Manchester City and Newcastle both drew, and Tottenham lost 2-0 to Aston Villa. Manchester United and Liverpool won, while Chelsea drew with Nottingham Forest. United, who are the closest of that trio, are still 11 points behind Arsenal.
Beyond Arsenal’s ascension to the top of the Premier League, the biggest story of the season has easily been Newcastle’s charge into the top four. Heading into both sides’ first match of the new year, Newcastle is third in the table, seven points behind the Gunners and trailing Manchester City by just two. Including their World Cup break friendlies, Newcastle is currently on a 15-match unbeaten streak. In fact, the 2-1 defeat to Liverpool on August 31st is their only loss across all competitions this season.
It’s been over seven months since we caught up with Elijah Newsome and Coming Home Newcastle. A period in which a lot has transpired at the club and their place in the Premier League.
TSF: This is the first chance we’ve had to talk, so let’s start with how you felt Newcastle handled the summer transfer market and what your expectations were as the season began.
CHN: Honestly it was a welcome surprise. It started off with Newcastle making the obvious choice of making Matt Target’s move permanent. He was a welcome addition to the team last season and helped solidify the back line. He was solid going forward and great defensively so it was a no-brainer to get him signed up long term even if it was as a depth piece.
Newcastle then made a surprise move for Nick Pope, which at the time some fans criticized due to how good Dubravka has been. It was a cheap deal that turned out to be excellent business as Pope leads the league in clean sheets. Sven Botman was the big-time move we thought was going to be the signature signing of that window. Botman is a young CB with loads of potential who is also the youngest CB Newcastle has signed since bringing in Jamaal Lascelles years ago. He has been immense for us this season and Newcastle have not lost a match in which he has made an appearance. I think we thought the club was done there, by the time we brought in Botman we had spent roughly £60m.
But then Newcastle splashed the cash for Alexander Isak at the end of the window and once again broke their transfer record for another exciting prospect. Newcastle had some solid youth signings including Aussie talent Gurang Koul, a 17-year-old set to join Newcastle in January. Additionally Newcastle improved in key areas throughout the fall by bringing in a CEO and a Partnerships Officer and revamping the club structure. Overall I’d say Newcastle fans were very impressed with the window.
TSF: After finishing between 10th and 13th for the past five seasons in the Premier League, the first half of the season has been a tremendous step forward for the club. It’s been exactly 20 years (the 2002-03 season) since Newcastle finished in the top four. How confident are you that they can hold onto their spot?
CHN: I think it’s possible only because Newcastle are playing significantly fewer games than everyone around them. The teams around them are bound to have some very congested fixtures with all of them involved in European football. I do worry a little about depth. Newcastle just lost Shelvey for another 6-8 weeks and have yet to have a single week where the trio of Isak, Saint-Maximin, and Wilson are all healthy at the same time. This hasn’t affected the team yet, but I think it might not be realistic to expect players like Jacob Murphy, Sean Longstaff, and Chris Wood to overperform every match.
As fixtures become more and more congested it’s likely Newcastle will have to play matches without the likes of Botman, Burn, Almiron, Bruno, etc. A task they really haven’t had to deal with so far. I do think it’s ambitious to say we would win the league but the top 6 is certainly the expectation given where we are in the season. Winning the league is possible but Newcastle would need to remain healthy and hope that the other teams around them began to lose matches. This could be a weird year similar to the 2015-2016 season where everything went right for Leicester to win the league, and it is not unrealistic for that to happen again but with Newcastle as the surprise league winners.
TSF: While Newcastle is not short on funds, they’ve taken a rather sensible approach to the transfer market since the takeover. How do you believe they will approach January and if they are reinforcing, which position(s) is most in need?
CHN: There was some chatter about bringing in another attacking player like a James Maddison or Christian Pulisic type player who can help provide goals and assists, but I seriously doubt Newcastle make a move for an attacking player unless someone high on their list becomes available for below value. The biggest need is for an athletic CDM that would allow Bruno to play his natural position as an 8. With Shelvey sidelined even longer this is even more of a priority.
Left-back or right-back could be another area where Newcastle could improve. If the club can offload Javi Manquillo they could bring in a young RB with the potential to learn under Kieran Trippier. Additionally, a loan move could happen at the left-back position with Jamal Lewis being out of favor as a backup to Dan Burn while Matt Targett is injured. Newcastle is going to be desperately trying to offload players this window like Ryan Fraser, Martin Dubravka, or Jamal Lewis. There’s likely some market for those players and it’s going to be necessary for them to offload those players if they want to add anyone to the squad.
Overall, it should be a quiet window for Newcastle in which they bring in two players max. Nothing like last January when they brought in a plethora of players. Again, it should be relatively quiet but it’s important to recognize the PIF has greenlit last-minute big-money signings in the last two windows because someone high on Newcastle’s list became available. If the right player became available I wouldn’t be surprised if Newcastle splashed the cash. Right now they’ve been linked to James Maddison who has had a high asking price and is at a club that doesn’t want him to leave. Given their league position, Maddison’s own aspirations, and desperate need to upgrade in other areas (like their back line) it would not surprise me if he is the last-minute target that becomes available for Newcastle to swoop in and buy. Tielemans is another player Newcastle are interested in who is in the exact same situation. If Leicester continues to lose it wouldn’t be surprising if either of them jumps ship before it sinks.
TSF: Joe Willock remains amongst the regular starters. Give us an annual update on the Arsenal supporters' favorite Newcastle player. He appears to be a long-term piece for their Champions League aspirations.
CHN: Willock is the same as he was the last time we did a pre-match interview. Solid but inconsistent. Every few matches he has a run of really good performances but then slightly regresses to a level of play that would allow him to be dropped from the team. He’s looked undroppable at times especially when Newcastle started playing him as a LCM behind Joelinton which has created a unique chemistry in which either player is comfortable playing as a LCM or LW at times. Unfortunately for Joe Willock, he has been the first sub-off since the return of Allan Saint-Maximin, often being the person sacrificed so that ASM can play his preferred left wing. It’s not necessarily a knock on him, and sometimes him being subbed off is not really deserved.
A good example of this is in the last match where he played a perfectly fine match, while Sean Longstaff had a less-than-desirable match and yet Willock was the one that was subbed for Allan Saint-Maximin. The fact that he was subbed off signals that he is no longer at that undroppable level he has the cap of playing at. Again, it must be stated that his getting subbed off early or not starting some matches doesn’t mean that Joe Willock is playing bad football. In fact, I think this last calendar year has been Joe Willock’s best year of his career. Even when he is not playing at his best, he still is playing, really solid football that has allowed him to not appear as a liability on the pitch.
Honestly, Joe has a great future here, where if he continues to learn and grow, he will always have a place in the squad. My only fear for Joe Willock is that Newcastle are starting to become a bit ambitious in the players they are targeting, especially in the central midfield position. A player like Youri Tielemans basically means that Joe would have to fight even harder for a place in the midfield. The midfield becomes even more crowded when you consider the fact that both Allan Saint-Maximin, and Alexander Isak I’ve looked good enough when they pushed Joelinton back into the midfield. If Newcastle signs another central midfielder of any kind it makes it that much harder for Willock to get as many opportunities. The best news for Willock however, is that Eddie Howe doesn’t care how much you cost, if you are performing well you will play. It essentially means that he could keep his place over the “better players” that could potentially be brought into this Newcastle team. We saw this last January where his play essentially kept Bruno from making a start for Newcastle.
TSF: Give us your predicted starting XI for Newcastle and a scoreline for the match.
CHN: This should be a fun one. I think after a disappointing result against Leeds, Newcastle will be hungry, and excited to play a team that will not sit back against them and play a bit more of an open match (it is still weird saying this after years of Bruce Ball and Rafa Benitez playing for draws). I do think that it is possible that Joe Willock actually loses his position in the starting 11 in order to make room for an Allan Saint-Maximin start. This last match was one of the only matches of the season where Allan Saint-Maximin was missed from the start. Newcastle looked devoid of attacking ideas and I think that means we see ASM slotted back into the XI.
Predicted Newcastle XI: Pope, Burn, Botman, Schär, Trippier, Bruno, Longstaff, Joelinton, Almiron, Saint-Maximin, Wilson.
I think it is really hard to say that this won’t be an exciting match, I know I said that the last time and was disappointed, but I am holding out faith that Newcastle and Arsenal will give us an exciting draw worthy of two top four sides. Final prediction is a 2-2 draw.
Thanks to Elijah Newsome and Coming Home Newcastle for taking the time to talk with us.