Let’s start with the positives: three points, Callum Wilson is scoring goals, and Saint-Maximin is brilliant. Apart from that, there’s probably not much else worth reading into after today’s 3-1 win over Burnley.
To start, Burnley were - and have been so far this season - pretty dreadful. Missing several key players to injury, their resulting line up played to Newcastle’s strengths. Newcastle played a 4-4-2 with a left side of Allan Saint-Maximin and Jamal Lewis: a defensively suspect pairing that was reliably exploited by Brighton and even West Ham to a degree. But whereas Jarrod Bowen and Tariq Lamptey had the pace to threaten on the counter whenever Lewis got caught high up the pitch, Burnley had… a 35 year-old Phil Bardsley and central midfielder Josh Brownhill. Additionally, neither of Burnley’s two forwards - Chris Wood and Ashley Barnes - are quick, nor are they the type to create chances for themselves, and for the first half Fernández and Schär handled their physical presence comfortably. Put simply, Burnley were predictable; they played long balls to Barnes and Wood, they filled the box on set pieces and crowded Karl Darlow, and their only real creative threat - Dwight McNeil - had a bad game.
It was the sort of game - physical and messy, against a team in poor form - that suits Newcastle, and one with many similarities to the win over West Ham. It was a great result from a decent performance. Although the team looked much more cohesive than they did against either Brighton or Tottenham - and that’s a low bar to clear - none of the goals were really evidence of a high-functioning team. The first was, of course, a moment of individual brilliance from Saint-Maximin; he takes Burnley’s entire backline to the cleaners then scores with a perfectly-placed shot from the edge of the box. And although Wilson’s excellent positioning is crucial to the second goal, it is, again, Saint-Maximin who creates it: pretty much out of nothing. Ryan Fraser does well to pressure Nick Pope into conceding the penalty for the third, but it is Nick Pope’s uncharacteristically awful mistake which creates the chance.
To be fair, a goal is a goal and a win is a win, but it is concerning that with better and deeper attacking options than any in the last five years, Newcastle have scored six goals this season from just eight shots on target. Of those six goals, two have been penalties and two have come from spectacular play by Saint-Maximin. The remaining pair - the two goals against West Ham - were both arguably the product of sloppy defending, or at least greatly facilitated by it. And while it’s fantastic to be sitting on seven points after four games, it’s worth asking: is this sustainable?
There has been no consistency to the types of goals scored so far; no clear passing pattern that reliably results in a shot on goal, or even a discernible attacking pattern from which we reliably look threatening. Last season, over a third - 36% - of Newcastle’s goals came from set pieces (compared to 24% and 26% respectively in the two seasons prior), and so far this season the team haven’t looked nearly as dangerous on set pieces. Newcastle are 16th for shots per game and 20th for shots on target per game, yet tied 7th for goals scored. Unless Bruce has perfected Guardiola’s ideal of creating the highest quality chances possible, that’s a pattern unlikely to hold true for the rest of the season.
Of course, Saint-Maximin has shown he’s capable of winning tight games single-handedly, and Newcastle will certainly be helped - as has been shown already - by the presence of a real striker in Callum Wilson. Four goals already? We haven’t seen numbers like those since the days of Joselu. And that could be enough; great players have kept up average teams before. But until Newcastle look like a team that’s functional independent of individual brilliance, rather than because of it, we’re one bad injury to Saint Maximin or Wilson away from being a very different team, and without the defensive solidity of Rafa’s years to fall back on.
There’s no point spending too much time worrying about whether Newcastle won today because they’re finding their feet under Bruce, or whether Newcastle won because Burnley are a team in bad form with an injury crisis. The run of fixtures after the international break - Manchester United, Wolves, Everton, Southampton, and Chelsea - will likely reveal the answer.