Newcastle United are a club that seems to be perpetually defined by its potential for growth, by its romantic historical status and untapped wellspring of support, by St. James' Park, a towering, imposing stadium which has always felt ready-made for Champions League football.
It's this sense that there is so much yet to be built in the north east that makes the current talk about Newcastle's chances in a relegation battle feel bizarre, not to mention a little frustrating. Pragmatism has never felt like quite the right fit for Newcastle, a club spoiled by local heroes, charismatic icons, and a trophy cabinet worthy of any of England's historic clubs.
And in spite of all this there's a clear disjunction between where their management promise that they can go to, and where they're happy for them to be at present - Mike Ashley can confidently swear not to sell Newcastle, as he did in 2016, until they win a trophy or qualify for the Champions League, but those achievements themselves will always feel distant from the day-to-day of Newcastle United.
None of this is, of course, new territory, anyone with even a passing interest in football is pretty aware that Newcastle aren't England's most efficiently run institution. But when analysing Newcastle's specific failures this season, it's easiest to look at them as a microcosm of these problems - in other words, Newcastle are suffering from a failure of ambition.
In a superficial sense, the most obvious place where Newcastle have failed whatsoever to think outside of the box is up top. Their season so far, and much of their progress under Steve Bruce, has been marked by attritional, cautious football where possession is ceded to the opponent and low percentage diagonal balls into the box are preferred to incisive passing.
In case there was any doubt the stats very much support this stylistic trend - the Magpies have put the most crosses into the box this season and have launched the third-most passes (i.e. passes longer than forty yards), while they've had the fourth-lowest share of possession in the league. The result? The lowest shots on target per 90 minutes in the Premier League (FbRef).
What is particularly jarring about this is that a Newcastle, who never seem to be bang on the money with recruitment, have actually stumbled into an extremely solid attacking lineup, which is now being wasted chasing raking diagonals around a football pitch.
They have added Callum Wilson to a lineup which can already boast a gifted if occasionally frustrating technician in Miguel Almirón, deeper ball progression from the base of midfield in Jonjo Shelvey, and in Joelinton (stop laughing, you), a fine link-up man who may lack confidence inside the box, but who has a habit of making things stick in the final third.
On top of it all, there's the jewel in their crown, Allan Saint-Maximin, a truly unique footballer who towards the back end of last season looked like he belonged at the level which Newcastle envisage themselves at, a winger whose speed, skill and creativity could be part of a fluid, direct forward line, but is instead the sole focal point of Newcastle's attacking intent.
A team with £40m attackers at its disposal should not effectively be rolling the dice every match, praying for a knockdown in the box to fall somewhere nice (like onto Eric Dier's hand), but ought to instead be thinking of a way to guarantee victory in football matches through keeping the ball and aiming to use the unique skills of their forwards to apply pressure on the opposition goal.
However, as with anything at Newcastle, it is unfair just to blame the manager, and Newcastle's faulty attack almost feels too obvious a target, a red herring which distracts us from the real reason why things just aren't working out for them.
In a way, Newcastle's attackers, much like Sheffield United's or Burnley's, are doing what is asked of them by the manager, and executing it well enough. You can argue about the difference in expectations between various clubs, as I have above, but that itself is an inescapable fact.
But if you set your stall out to gamble, to create a small amount of chances knowing that one might go in but the opponent cannot score, it doesn't help when your back five will not play ball.
And herein lies would currently be a problem for any manager taking over is that Newcastle - their defence is simply not fit for purpose. Both the first-choice personnel and the rotation options, in the wake of a long-term injury to Fabian Schär, cannot be relied upon.
It's obvious from a data standpoint that Newcastle need to worry far more urgently about their defence than their attack - their xG (expected goals - i.e. how many goals they'd be expected to score on average from the quality of shots they've had) is the seventh-worst in the league, but their xGA (expected goals against - so the same but for the shots they've faced) is the fourth-worst (Understat).
But simply watching Newcastle's last two results paints a picture of a defence which is trying to be a solid unit, but is comprised of too many unreliable component parts.
Federico Fernández struggled to pick up the runs of Neil Maupay, Lucas Moura and Leandro Trossard against Spurs and Brighton, while for the central defender in a back three Jamaal Lascelles struggles to organise his back line and is guilty of some nervous moments on the ball. While Matt Ritchie looks set for a considerable injury layoff, neither he nor Javier Manquillo are a serious challenge for top attackers.
Will Karl Darlow, or Martin Dúbravka for that matter, be making 12 saves in every match, as the former did against Spurs in a game where Harry Kane was constantly finding gaps between the central defenders? Newcastle will certainly have to hope so, otherwise they'll find that their low block quickly unravels.
All in all, it's not at all a positive indictment of Newcastle's approach to investing in the squad that they are so vulnerable in the area where they most need to be solid, and even if Bruce does find some kind of progressive balance to his attack, this Achilles heel puts a limit on how far they are able to go.
Newcastle are just about stable at the moment, but this is a critical season, in the wake of a failed takeover which promised genuinely transformative results, to see if they can show some sign of momentum, or begin to slide backwards.
Unless ambition is shown on not just a managerial but a structural level, the latter appears to be much likelier.
Source : 90min