Jeff Hendrick received Almirón’s pass, put off Aaron Cresswell with a quick feint, and drilled his shot just over Fabianski and just under the crossbar, securing Newcastle’s 2-0 win over West Ham in the empty London Stadium.
This isn’t how a Newcastle season is supposed to start. The last time a Newcastle season began with a win was 2012: 2-1 at home against Tottenham. The last time it began with an away win? 2007. 3-1 at Bolton. And the last time it began with an away win and a clean sheet, the Premier League didn’t exist. That was in August 1983: 1-0 away at Leeds in the Second Division.
In an alternate universe, Allan Saint-Maximin was sold to Everton a week ago for fifteen million pounds, Callum Wilson was deemed too old and too expensive, Carroll pulled his hamstring in the fourth minute, and Newcastle fans are hanging on rumours about bringing in Kelechi Iheanacho on loan. But in this universe, things are — strangely — looking up.
Three of the four summer signings — Jamal Lewis, Jeff Hendrick, and Callum Wilson — started, and all impressed, maybe none more unexpectedly than Jeff Hendrick. As the first signing of the summer and a free transfer, he was viewed by many as an early omen of another underwhelming transfer season. The 28 year old - though a solid utility player at Burnley - hadn’t seemed able to recapture the form he displayed during Ireland’s 2016 Euro run. He played only 24 matches for Burnley last season, scoring two and assisting two more.
Apart from setting up the first and scoring the second of Newcastle’s two goals, Hendrick registered nine recoveries, two interceptions, and together with Manquillo formed a solid right side that allowed Saint-Maximin and Jamal Lewis to combine down the left: an impressive debut that, if nothing else, reassures in the knowledge that Newcastle will have multiple capable options on the wing in such a condensed season.
The other new signings impressed as well. When it became clear that West Ham had no intention of giving Saint-Maximin any space or time on the ball, Lewis’ overlapping runs ensured Newcastle could still threaten down the left as he put in several good crosses, one of which lead to a decent headed chance for Wilson. Apart from his goal, Wilson’s presence allowed Carroll to drop slightly deeper, winning twelve aerial duels, playing with his back to goal and at his best as a greasy 6’4 nuisance for defenders.
All this without new signing Ryan Fraser, who in 2018/19, had twelve goal combinations with Callum Wilson: the second most goal combinations between two players in Premier League history. Hopefully Fraser’s presence will allow Miguel Almirón to move into his preferred position of number ten, where he exhibited real signs of life towards the end of last season. On their best form, a front four of Fraser, Almirón, Saint-Maximin, and Wilson has the potential to be the most exciting attack in the bottom half of the league. Newcastle’s fixtures, too, are promising. While there are tough matches scattered throughout this autumn, the first real string of bad fixtures is the run following Boxing Day, which sees Newcastle facing Manchester City, Liverpool, and Leicester over one week.
Granted, it’s Newcastle, so there’s always sufficient cause for pessimism. One strong performance doesn’t put to rest plenty of legitimate doubts about Bruce as a manager and tactician. And while the new signings performed well, all four are coming off of less than stellar seasons and it remains to be seen how and whether they’ll perform over the long stretch. Yesterday’s win could easily be seen more as proof of a crumbling West Ham than a revitalized Newcastle. It’s probably worth waiting for that performance to be replicated at least once before allowing ourselves to feel even heavily-tempered optimism, but that’s no fun.
In summary: third in the league, 100% win record, and Joelinton to finish top scorer.