Just over a year ago, Leicester crushed relegation-haunted Newcastle 4-0 at the King Power. An awful lot has changed…
It’s been a long year, but even so the contrast between Newcastle’s trip to the King Power today and the one they made 12 months and two weeks ago is extraordinary.
Fifty-four weeks ago, Eddie Howe took Newcastle to Leicester after finally ending an embarrassingly long wait for a first league win of the season the previous week against Burnley. Any suggestion that momentum may be building was swiftly ended by a 4-0 defeat to a Leicester side who moved within three points of the European spots, the seventh and last of which was at that time held by Spurs.
A thumping, chastening defeat left Newcastle second from bottom, level on points with Norwich and a point ahead of Burnley. Miguel Almiron missed a couple of presentable chances, cementing his reputation as an honest grafter of a footballer but one who sadly couldn’t finish his dinner.
Yeah. It’s been a very long year.
It would be easy to gloss over the impressiveness of this Newcastle win as we all get ourselves reacquainted with the Premier League. Easy to just go “Well, yeah, Newcastle are good now” and remember those catastrophic early weeks of the season when Leicester couldn’t defend at all and seemed to concede five or six every week.
But Leicester had actually turned that round. They’d conceded only once in their last six games before the World Cup, to a Kevin De Bruyne free-kick for Manchester City. They were a team seemingly on the up again.
Within 10 minutes, though, that defensive solidity that had taken so long to acquire had been shattered by a rampant Newcastle. For the visitors, perhaps the most impressive thing was the way a six-week gap made absolutely no difference. They started this game exactly like a team who had won seven of their last eight Premier League games and in absolutely no way like one getting back up to speed following a six-week lay-off.
Newcastle won their penalty that would eventually be converted with emphatic aplomb by Chris Wood after roughly 90 seconds. Which is not a very long time in a football match. And yet even then you found yourself nodding and going “That had been coming.”
By the time Leicester had got anywhere close to the pace of Newcastle’s game, it was already 2-0 as Almiron sauntered through an embarrassingly acquiescent Foxes defence to sidefoot past Danny Ward and inside the far post. Newcastle were carrying on where they left off and so too was a player who has become the talisman of this season.
Leicester did get a foothold in the game after that and had half-chances to get back into it. But the fragile confidence built up by the defence in the weeks before the World Cup break had been shattered, and conceding a third goal from a heroically poorly defended corner was ferociously on brand for this return to the early-season calamity iteration of this Leicester team. Defeat to Newcastle isn’t disastrous, but the manner of it could be for Leicester if old barely healed wounds have been reopened.
For Newcastle, though, the pace of the journey is staggering. They will end Boxing Day second in the Premier League table and are miles ahead of schedule. In Manchester City terms, Newcastle are only in their Adebayor-Bellamy phase. Complaints at the nature and source of their wealth are inevitable and well-founded, but their transfer business has been conducted with flint-eyed precision and the transformation of so many players who were such a big part of the relegation-haunted version of Newcastle from a year ago is extraordinary.
Almiron is the most obvious, but not far behind is Joelinton, scorer of today’s third goal and excellent once again in completing another step on his own unlikely personal journey from misfiring running joke of a striker to complete midfielder.
The prominence of so many players from the before times is, counter-intuitively, its own indicator of how good the recruitment at Newcastle has been. They haven’t tried to instantly build a brand new team – which would have been mighty tempting given just how bad they were – but have made a handful of sensible yet significant upgrades in every area of the pitch while dragging the existing players along with them. So far it’s very evolution not revolution and the results have been better than anyone could have expected.
From the moment the takeover was completed, there was always no ceiling to what Newcastle could achieve. But it was also perfectly possible to see multiple ways it could go wrong and no guarantees that we had another Manchester City on our hands, and even if we did the likelihood was that it would take several years to correct Newcastle’s trajectory, never mind send them soaring to the top of the table. A year and a bit later, it’s all happening very fast indeed.
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