Newcastle stuttered a little against West Ham, but it says much for their progress that they will consider this two points lost rather than one point gained…
If nothing else, Everton’s lunchtime win against Arsenal will have caught the imaginations of those just behind the leaders in the Premier League table. Manchester United reduced their gap to eight points with a home win against Crystal Palace, as well as nudging their way up to third place in the table. Manchester City could reduce theirs to just two with a win at Tottenham tomorrow. And then came Newcastle United.
No matter how possible it’s started to look as the weeks have progressed – and they’ve now been in the top four since the middle of October – few seem to have countenanced the possibility of Newcastle getting involved in the Premier League title race. But a win in the evening kick-off against a West Ham team which has been faltering this season would have given them an opportunity to reduce their deficit to the leaders to eight points.
Newcastle bullishness reached new heights in their previous match, when their win against Southampton took them to another milestone on their journey as part of the Saudi Arabian sportswashing project, a first cup final since 1999 and a first League Cup final since 1976. A home match against West Ham, a team who kicked off separated from the Premier League’s relegation places by goal difference only, seemed like a perfect game for them to celebrate such a moment.
They were certainly handed the perfect start by a West Ham defence which began the game as though they were kicking off at 5.30 in the morning. Newcastle had a goal disallowed within 40 seconds when Miguel Almiron’s cross was turned in from close range by Joe Willock, only for play to be pulled back because Almiron had been unable to keep the ball in play before delivering his cross.
Respite for the West Ham defence couldn’t have been more temporary. Almost immediately, a gaping hole opened up in the centre of their midfield and Sean Longstaff’s pass was perfectly weighted for Callum Wilson to sweep the ball past Lukasz Fabianksi with his first touch. The party that had started the previous week seemed set to continue.
But while this shock and awe start threatened to blow West Ham away before they’d even got into their stride, Newcastle spent the remainder of the first half failing to live up to their early billing. The absence of Bruno Guimaraes, suspended for three games after getting himself sent off in the Carabao Cup semi-final game against Southampton, seemed to destabilise Newcastle in midfield, with the excellent Declan Rice tidying up without issue.
And West Ham continued to improve as the half progressed. When Lucas Paqueta equalised from close range after 32 minutes, it came with Newcastle having had a couple of narrow escapes of their own. They might have led at the break, had Nayef Aguerd not fluffed his lines with a free header from six yards out. By the time that whistle blew, St James’ Park was a considerably more sullen-sounding place than it had been at kick-off.
The first twenty minutes of the second half followed similar patterns, a vast, guttural swell of noise as Newcastle pushed into something approaching an attacking position followed by increasingly-agonised howls as West Ham got stuck win and won the ball back from them or, increasingly as the half progressed, by a dull rumble of ‘SHOOOOOOT’ whenever a Newcastle player found themselves in possession and within 40 yards of the West Ham goal.
West Ham were holding their own, and this shouldn’t been particularly surprising. Since the start of 2023, they’ve started to look like they’ve turned a corner, with wins against Brentford and Derby in the FA Cup and against Everton in the Premier League. The shoots of recovery of tiny and West Ham are certainly not going to match their Premier League achievements of the last couple of seasons, but signs of improvement have been visible for a couple of weeks.
Anthony Gordon appeared midway through the second half for his Newcastle debut and did at least seem to enervate the crowd when he picked up the ball and tried to run with it, and Newcastle might have snatched a second goal had it not been for a quite magnificent tackle by Aguerd on Wilson as the Newcastle forward shaped to shoot after breaking through on the right hand side of the penalty area.
But West Ham continued to dig in and even made a January transfer window inflected change of their own, when Danny Ings joined the game with just under ten minutes to play. Their threat throughout the closing stages of the game was minimal. With matters so tight near the bottom of the Premier League, every single point matters and teams can all-afford to gamble everything on an unlikely away win at this stage of the season.
And the result of this was the match rather ran out of steam rather than building up towards any sort of enthralling climax. Newcastle continue to lob bombs into the West Ham penalty area. The visitors’ stubborn defence kept chucking them back. And by the full-time whistle, much of the life had been sucked out of St James’ Park.
It’s hardly as though there weren’t positives to take from this match. Newcastle stretch their unbeaten run in the Premier League to sixteen games, and they’re now the only team to have only lost once in the league this season, following Arsenal’s oopsie on Merseyside earlier in the day. Gordon showed little flashes when he came on, and they were seldom at any risk of losing the match throughout its closing stages.
But this was also Newcastle’s tenth draw of the season, and their relative bluntness throughout the latter stages of this game hints at their biggest issue. Not for the first time this season, they struggled in the middle without Bruno Guimaraes and failed to a kill a game off. Converting just some of those draws into wins would have put them right in the middle of the hunt, but these dropped two points leaves them ten points off the top of the table.
Perhaps a tilt at the title is expecting a little too much from this team, not that Newcastle supporters will be complaining at what their team has already delivered, this season. A cup final and a strong a possibility of Champions League qualification for next season is plenty enough to be getting along with, even if this match will feel more like two points dropped than one point gained.
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