There are league tables and then there are league tables. In the standings that matter most, Newcastle are 16th. It is their lowest position of the season and yet substantially better than their location in other charts. They are 19th for shots, 19th for shots on target, 19th for completed passes and 20th for share of possession.
All of which feels a continuation of last season. Newcastle played a more attacking brand of football in the summer; until then, however, they contrived to rank in the bottom two of the various possession and shooting tables while safely in mid-table in the actual standings.
But there is a still more unofficial table, a far more subjective one, and it explains some of the criticism of Steve Bruce. It is one they may top. This is more subjective, but his Newcastle play badly more often than any other team, with the possible exception of West Bromwich Albion.
There are different criteria to what constitutes a poor performance, but it is not merely losing. But consider some of Newcastle’s setbacks. They only lost 2-0 to Chelsea, but registering one shot on target and having 29 per cent of possession spoke of a complete lack of ambition. Conceding five goals to promoted Leeds felt another kind of disappointment. Going down 3-0 to Brighton, without drawing a save, was being outclassed by a team with similar aspirations. Losing 1-0 to winless Sheffield United, and when they were worse with 11 men than 10, perhaps ranked as the lowest of the low.
But there are other bad performances: Aston Villa on Saturday, or Arsenal last Monday, or Southampton in November. Newcastle even got a point when playing badly at Tottenham: 12 shots on target to one, and that a penalty from a contentious handball. The anaemic defeat can be a Newcastle speciality. That day, they managed an anaemic draw.
And it is worth drawing a comparison. Definitions of a bad display will differ. Yet while Sheffield United have a solitary win and may yet end up with the lowest Premier League points tally, this view is that they have rarely played that badly. They often lose by one-goal margins, a less talented team undone by one mistake, or one moment of quality. Fulham were hapless early in the campaign but arguably have not played genuinely badly since September. Brighton’s problem is that they are regularly praised for playing well when not winning, but at least there are elements to admire. Some would say Burnley often play badly, but there is purpose, industry and strategy to Dycheball. Is the same true of Newcastle?
Playing badly may be an elastic concept that reflects expectations and expenditure, gameplan and a response to how a game is going. It entails an assessment of effort and intent, all elements that are not perfectly assessed by the statistics. There is a case for arguing that Arsenal, with their sterility in autumn, figure highly in the table of playing badly.
Newcastle’s no-show performances, the days when it felt they did not turn up, present a challenge in assessing them. They are why perceptions can be more negative than the points tally would suggest. Last season would indicate that there is an art to playing badly plenty of times and still getting at least 38 points, an efficiency to winning a higher proportion of games when they actually perform that others can only envy. Perhaps, with 19 points from 19 games and yet a host of dreadful displays, Newcastle are refining that art.
Or perhaps the precedents from their neighbours north-east bode badly. A few years ago, Sunderland were the specialists in being wretched frequently and yet surviving. Until they lost the habit of winning enough of the games when they weren’t wretched and simply got relegated in empty, embarrassing fashion. Because at least the sides who perform reasonably and lose have something to build on. Those that are awful in losses rely on results. And when results dry up, they have nothing else to fall back on.
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