THEY say it’s one for sorrow, two for joy.
Well 11 Magpies seem to be bringing a whole lot of luck to Newcastle this season.
Even the most optimistic Geordies expected a season-long relegation battle under Steve Bruce.
But the Toon are 12th in the Premier League – SEVEN points clear of the drop. Yet there might be more to it than meets the eye.
Because no side has been outplayed as often as Newcastle this season. Starting with the obvious: they don’t control the ball, they chase it.
With so little possession, it’s hard to work your way up the pitch.
So Newcastle hardly even try. Instead, Steve Bruce has his players launch it long. Longer than anyone but Burnley, in fact.
This reliance on route one means the passes that create chances are few and far between.
Newcastle barely even bother with the method most of the top teams use to thread their way past defences – through balls.
The Toon play two through balls every five games – the third-lowest number of any Premier League side. It’s a fifth of Manchester City’s 11-in-five ratio.
Instead, they favour crosses as a tactic. They hit more as an overall proportion of the passes they play than anyone other than Burnley or Everton.
But that still doesn’t mean there are very many coming over. Newcastle play the third fewest crosses in the league.
You’d think they’d force it out wide more often. Because the Magpies are fantastic in the air.
Seven different Newcastle players have scored a header this season – more than at any other club than Liverpool.
They also have one of the most effective targetmen in the league – Joelinton’s 138 aerial duels won is second only to West Ham man Sebastien Haller’s 181. His goal tally of one places him joint-52nd of forwards in the top flight, though.
The Brazilian has a rare ability to create the second balls for others to smash shots from.
And that skill lends itself to more crosses than Newcastle play.
But even when playing it long and wide as much as they do, Newcastle are still finding it difficult to have a go at goal.
Only Bournemouth and Crystal Palace have taken fewer shots than Newcastle. And at the other end, the picture’s even worse.
It’s not unusual for teams to be on the wrong end of more shots than they carve out. In fact, across the season, there are only seven Premier League sides with a positive shot balance – where they’ve taken more shots than the teams they’ve faced.
But, again, at the bottom of the pile come Newcastle. The fact that their shot balance is as negative as Liverpool’s is positive shows just how much they’re being dominated in games.
Although Newcastle haven’t conceded the highest number of shots – that’s Aston Villa – they are second in the list.
Even so, there are nine sides who’ve conceded more than the Toon’s 36 goals.
The difference is mostly down to Martin Dubravka’s incredible goalkeeping. By analysing the shots he’s faced and comparing them with similar efforts in the past, you can see how likely any attempt on goal is to go in.
And Dubravka is preventing a lot of goals that other keepers would have let in.
The Slovakian has singlehandedly – and often two-handedly – been responsible for denying eight or nine goals Newcastle would otherwise have conceded.
That’s the highest number of any Premier League keeper. And considering almost half the keepers who’ve featured this season have let in more goals than the shot quality deserved, Dubravka’s been astonishing.
Something else extraordinary is how clever Newcastle are when they actually get on the ball.
Because although as we’ve seen they’re launching a lot of long balls, they’re far from aimless.
It stands to reason that the teams who punt the ball the furthest would be the most inaccurate passers. And that’s broadly true. But not for Newcastle.
In fact, their passing accuracy is much closer to Wolves’ than it is to Burnley or Sheffield United’s.
And when analysing the shots they’ve taken in the same way as the shots Dubravka’s faced, we can see that Newcastle’s finishing is just as impressive as his keeping.
So it’s fair to say that although Newcastle have been riding their luck with the possession and shots they give away, sometimes, you make your own luck with genuine quality.
And with the Magpies flying higher than almost anyone expected, that certainly seems the case at the Toon.