In a game that will be remembered for little other than the fact that it was entirely forgettable, Newcastle’s match against West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns ended 0-0. The result does little to relieve the pressure surrounding relegation for both teams, especially given Fulham’s shock victory over Liverpool at Anfield, putting them 8 points clear of the Baggies and only 1 point behind the Magpies.
Newcastle made three changes to the side that lined up against Wolves, with Dummett replacing Lewis at left-back and Saint-Maximin and Almiron making way following their injuries in that game for Fraser and Hendrick, Once again the Magpies set up in their familiar 4-4-2 diamond formation, with Fraser up top alongside Joelinton and Willock at the top of the diamond to allow Hendrick to sit deeper with Shelvey.
Early on, Newcastle looked bright, pressing well and moving the ball quickly and purposefully. Willock and Fraser looked to carry the ball at pace in the absence of Miggy and ASM, whilst Joelinton impressed with his physicality and work ethic. Last week out against Wolves, Newcastle became the first team since Arsenal in 2018 to have 13 players attempt a shot at goal, and this week the first chance of the game fell to an unlikely player in Krafth, who caught a half volley from outside of the box well to force a save from Johnstone in the Baggies goal.
Newcastle’s best chance of the game came after just 11 minutes when Willock picked up the ball outside our own penalty area and fended off a couple of tackles as he broke forward and played a long teasing through ball for Joelinton. Big Joe outpaced his defender as he drove towards the goal and he tried to slide across the keeper to an unmarked Fraser but a fantastic sliding tackle from Furlong snuffed out the opportunity. An out and out striker, who perhaps was in goalscoring form, may have taken the early shot, but it was a fantastic run and was unlucky not to have found Fraser who would have been certain to score.
As the first half progressed, it was Newcastle who looked like the side who had only had three days’ rest, as they appeared sluggish and West Brom began to gain momentum. Diagne and Pereira - as we mentioned in our preview - caused problems, with the Baggies first real chance falling to Pereira in the middle of the box whose volleyed effort was a tame one and straight at Dubravka. Diagne had a sharp chance to latch on to a loose ball in the Newcastle box not long after but only managed to sky it into the box.
For the third successive game, Newcastle’s training ground work almost paid off, with Fraser playing a short corner to Shelvey who drew his man in before pulling away from goal to hit a first time shot which required a save from Johnstone. West Brom had joy down the left for most of the game, another where Krafth didn’t quite cut it, and they finished the half the stronger with Diagne rising highest to meet a cross and headed it goalward.
Much like the end of the first, the second half started with the Baggies well on top. Newcastle struggled to get their foot on the ball and were far too often found just lumping the ball up field. Arguably West Brom’s best chance fell to Phillips who blazed a shot in a congested box from about 8 yards out.
Hendrick was pulled before the hour mark, after being unable to really leave any mark on the game, replaced by Gayle who occupied the top of the diamond with Willock dropping slightly deeper. The two linked up almost immediately, when Gayle broke forward and laid a pass off to Willock on the right side of the box who hit a fierce strike towards the top corner that was well dealt with by Johnstone. Once again, Gayle didn’t seem to hit full speed all game and the striker who isn’t being played as a striker looks starved of confidence. With the main attacking trio out, it was a great opportunity to set the team up around the likes of Gayle and Carroll, to give them a chance to provide the goals we’re been starved of recently. But it wasn’t an opportunity in the eyes of Bruce, who felt it would have been counterproductive to the work on the diamond that has been done over the past six or so weeks.
The final period of the game had chances few and far between, with Joelinton getting a good look on his left foot and the Baggies playing dangerous balls in and around the Newcastle box, but all in all, it was fairly routine days for both goalkeepers and the end of the game fizzled out with a whimper. Both sides lacked cutting edge in the final third and in the end a draw was probably a fair result.
Newcastle will take the positive in that they kept just their fifth clean sheet of the season, and it was the first for Dubravka in his second game back in the PL side this season. Newcastle’s number one looked much more assured this week compared to against Wolves. Other than a few routine stops he was rarely troubled, but it was good to hear him bellowing out orders to his back-line and composing the side whilst in possession. Dummett was another who impressed. Whilst he may not provide the legs and energy getting forward compared to Lewis, he shored up the defense and other than a mistake early on, stood strong and battled well in a performance that was more than worthy of being retained for the Magpies next game out.
Each time I see him play, the more I’m sold that Willock was a great loan signing in January. I was all aboard the Maitland-Niles train when the rumours were spreading about his potential arrival and somewhat underwhelmed when we announced Willock instead. But if recent weeks hadn’t already done him justice, in this game Willock thoroughly outshone his Arsenal team-mate and was Newcastle’s best carrier of the ball throughout the game. Granted, his final pass needs a bit more work, but the lad is putting in the hard work and I just hope that he’s getting as much out of being at Newcastle, as we are from him.
Post Match Presser
After the game, Bruce gave an uncharacteristically, uneventful press conference. Given the trials and tribulations of the past week off of the field, he underlined the fact that the side are attempting to put the training ground clash behind them and he believed that the togetherness of the side was on show and the players were “on the same hymn sheet”. In an honest assessment, Bruce acknowledged that West Brom have become a tougher team to break down and that the side deserved something from the game, but a lack of clinicalness up top prevented Newcastle from taking all three points.
We’re disappointed we haven’t come here and won but we always knew it was going to be difficult in the circumstances. You’ll take a point and move on. I couldn’t fault their effort or endeavour to make sure they got something from the game - I thought that was self evident - but at certain times we just lacked that quality in the final third which deserted us.
Whilst the supporters of the club will hardly be satisfied by the performance and Bruce’s nonchalance towards only coming away with a draw against a poor WBA, the fact that he acknowledged the lads work ethic and that no player was called out, points towards a man who may have learnt a lesson or two in man-management this week. Plus, if the news shared by Luke Edwards regarding Bruce’s job being safe is true, fans should take some joy from the fact that he’s now attempting to keep Newcastle united in working towards Premier League safety.
BREAKING NEWS Steve Bruce will not be sacked as #nufc manager and will definitely still be in charge against Aston Villa, probably well beyond that from what I've been told.— Luke Edwards (@LukeEdwardsTele) March 7, 2021
Newcastle and West Brom absolutely stench of Championship quality right now. The Magpies have only won twice in the past 16 league games, accruing just 10 points in that time. With their three main attacking men sidelined at least until after the international break at the end of March, goals look to be slim pickings which will make points difficult to come by. More worryingly is that sides around them have started putting in passionate and strong performances, as well as crucially making a knack of picking up points. Over the past 6 games played by each team, Fulham sit fourth in the form table having picked up 11 points in that time. In fact, of the teams in and around Newcastle and in the relegation battle, only Southampton and Sheffield Utd have performed worse, but both have picked up wins in the past week.
That’s not to say that all is lost for Newcastle. They currently sit above the relegation zone, plus they have a game in hand over the bottom three clubs, as well as Burnley who are only three points ahead. Immediate fixtures include hosting an Aston Villa side who have been out of sorts since Grealish has been absent through injury before heading to Brighton who have lost their last three in another potentially huge six pointer. Fixtures take a turn to the less fancied after the international break, but the return of Wilson, Almiron and Saint-Maximin should provide a huge boost both to morale and to quality in the final third.
“Our goal is to stay out of the bottom three and with the players we’ve got, we can do that. It’s not about performances. We have to find a way. I’m quietly confident we’ll do that.” - Steve Bruce Post-Match Press Conference
Not picking up all three points against the Baggies feels like a huge opportunity missed for Bruce’s men, and the performance was disheartening, but the season still has a long way to go and the fat lady isn’t singing just yet.