As of 28th December 2018, here are where things stand with Newcastle in the Premier League:

  • 15th in the table
  • Their GD of (-12) that ranked 15th in the PL

And this was their state on 28th December 2017:

  • 15th in the table
  • A GD of (-10) that ranked 13th in the PL

However, the first half of the ‘17-’18 season didn’t include three notable players: Dummett (via injury), and Dubravka & Kenedy hadn’t arrived yet. Not to mention Jamaal Lascelles was injured during large parts of November and December, coinciding with our worst form of the season.

Logically, it’d follow that if these players were a part of the squad from Week 1, then the positive stretch from the second half of that ‘17-’18 campaign could sustain into the new season. And yet the team’s performances have been a regression from said form after the January window.

This piece intends to shine a light on some of the reasons why this has been the case, in addition to celebrating a certain player’s consistently outstanding performances.


The Good: The Slovakian Stopper

Martin Dubravka has been Newcastle’s best performer through 19 games, and the debate here would only centre around who’d qualify as ‘second best’.

There have been other quality performers, but not to Martin’s heights and consistency: Rondon took time to blood in, Pérez’s defensive contributions are now outweighing his attacking credits, Ki isn’t as much of a game-changing catalyst as Shelvey, Lascelles’ form has noticeably dipped, and the ever-fascinating Schär’s best moments haven’t coincided with wins (yet).

When comparing goalkeepers, it can be tough to find apples-to-apples comparisons. GKs for low-possession sides often face a higher volume of shots and saves. Also, passing accuracy can have as much to do with a side’s buildup approach as it does a GKs technical proficiency.

In other words, there are a lot of variables to control for, in order to separate the wheat from the chaff.

In terms of shot-saving, Martin Dubravka has been lights out; he is arguably one of the best GKs in the PL. Here are some numbers:

  • He has the highest amount of saves from within the 6-yard box (0.5/game)
  • He is 2nd in “from-hands-success” percentage, with 43% accuracy. (Note: this a newer stat on the block, and it has legs. It speaks to GK distribution after a ball has been caught. This eliminates the artificially-inflating passing combos where the ball is played back-and-forth between CBs and GKs.)
  • He is 5th in saves-per-goal, with 2.23 saves.
  • He is 5th in “rush out” per game with 0.5.
  • He is 7th in punches per game, with 0.56 punches.
  • And he is 9th in claims success, with 80% of high claims being accounted for.

TL;DR – Dubravka has been Good.


The Bad: Newcastle’s Home Form

There’s an old saw about the real demonstration of a club’s quality being a formula like so: away victories minus home losses. The idea is to find out which sides have the mettle to win the tough points while penalizing them for the “easy” points they don’t retain.

For example, so far this season, Liverpool has 8 away wins and 0 home losses (+8). By contrast, Newcastle has a return of 2 away wins and 7 home losses (-5).

To contextualize that a little, the latter half of Newcastle’s ‘17-’18 season had a tally of 2 away wins and 2 home losses (0).

While the following “Ugly” section will profile Newcastle’s anaemic attack, there are surprising metrics behind the poor home form: the defence is allowing a larger volume of quality chances this season. Brace yourself for some metrics with clunky acronyms to follow.

The first is Non-Penalty expected Goal Attempts (“NPxGA” henceforth), which means that it’s a summation of opponents shot attempts, though penalty attempts are excluded. (Which is helpful for levelling the playing field since Newcastle and penalties have a tragic recent history.)

2nd half of ‘17-’18: 1.0 NPxGA (11th in PL).

1st half of ‘18-’19: 1.4 NPxGA (19th in PL).

The following metric, Opponent Deep Passes Completed (ODC) measures opponents passes completed within 20 yards of goal.

2nd half of ‘17-’18: 5.7 ODC (10th in PL).

1st half of ‘18-’19: 7.6 ODC (18th in PL).

Remember, we’re not examining the actual goals allowed at St. James’ but, rather, the frequency of deep passing and the quality of shot attempts allowed. There has been a noted downturn from last season’s form to this current one in this regard.

Another downward trend for the defence has been the uptick in dead ball goals allowed at home in ‘18-’19. 5 set piece goals and 2 penalties have been shipped this season, compared to 4 and 1 for the latter sequence of last season.

It seems as if a recurring theme with these defensive breakdowns is ‘miscommunication’, rather than technical shortcomings or formation switches. (Note: little variance was found between Back 4 & Back 5 performance data so far this season.) As with the November/December period of ‘17-’18, injuries could be the source of the miscommunications experienced along the backline.


The Ugly: Chances (not) Created

There is a perplexing reality that Newcastle United fans are trying to reconcile: even though the selection has been largely the same and injuries haven’t been a huge factor (outside the backline), the attacking production of this campaign lags behind last season’s. (This section uses “Non-Penalty Expected Goals” or ‘NPxG’, so that penalty attempts are removed from the study.)

At a glance, here are attacking metrics for ‘18-’19:

  • Chances Created from open play: 6.4 chances/game (18th in PL)
  • NPxG: 0.9/game (17th in PL)

Here are those same metrics for ‘17-’18:

  • Chances Created from open play: 7.3/game (9th in PL)
  • NPxG: 1.3/game (11th in PL)
    • Note: this specific stat was generated solely from the latter 19 games of ‘17-’18. Chances created could only be generated from the entire campaign.

The most important attacking stat, of course, is goals scored. And so far this year, NUFC has scored 14, whilst 20 were scored over the 2nd half of last season. One key difference between these two sides has been the presence (or absence) of Jonjo Shelvey.

Here’s a stats study of chance creation-related stats for Shelvey, Ki, and Diamé so far this season. Note that while Ki and Diame hold their own in an isolated category or two, Shelvey stands out in Chances Created (from open play), Shots on Target, Take on Success, and Long Balls:

Diamé and his counter-pressing abilities aren’t going anywhere (barring injury); he’s locked into the Starting XI. However, as assured as Ki has been in buildup play, he’s well below the creative production that Shelvey offers.


In Conclusion

As comes with supporting Newcastle United, there is good and bad to find on the pitch.

Whether its Rondon’s increasingly clinical performances, Dubravka’s sublime shot-stopping, or Schar’s diagonals from deep, there is quality in the side.

However, there are issues at St. James’, as well as general attacking production. With Ki being out on international duty, Shelvey’s return from injury has become critical for the team’s fortunes.