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11th Aug 2019

Newcastle United, the same but different

Kyle Picknell

As the rain beat down on St. James’ Park, a sodden Steve Bruce furrowed his brow and yelled instructions at his players. The commentator asked: “Is this so much different to watching a Rafa Benitez side?”

Squint your eyes and no, probably not. Newcastle were tight and compact without the ball, keeping everyone but Joelinton behind it when Arsenal were in possession and attempting to counter quickly – almost solely through the greased lightning dribbling of Miguel Almiron. Last season’s blueprint, then, remains intact.

Whatever else Newcastle might be at the moment, in the eyes of supporters and observers alike, they still have hope whilst that Paraguayan midfielder takes to the field. He is the spark. Even if he does possess the shaved head, oversized shirt and general body language of a Year 8 boy who really doesn’t fancy going to double maths after lunch.

Notable today were the 4,000 empty seats in the ground due to an organised boycott in protest of Mike Ashley’s ownership of the club. During a thankless match played with all the energy and enthusiasm of a dead jellyfish washed up on the beach, the absent numbers didn’t miss much.

Jonjo Shelvey, who otherwise spent the first half snapping around Matteo Guendouzi’s ankles as though the mop-haired Frenchman had done something to personally offend him, possibly by being mop-haired, possibly by being French, carved out the best opportunity in the opening 45, collecting a throw-in on his chest and volleying onto the post.

Meanwhile, Arsenal’s best moment fell to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang after Henrikh Mkhitaryan dinked a pass over the top. He could only fire straight at Martin Dubravka and Mkhitaryan could only spend the rest of the game repeatedly giving the ball away. Such is life.

Joelinton, for all the talk of his exceptionally underwhelming goal record in the Bundesliga, looked sharp and dynamic up front, harrying the Arsenal backline and making the most of what few touches he was granted by Newcastle’s much of a muchness clogger midfield eager to sponge their way through the entire match. £50 million for Sean Longstaff? Really?

Fortunately, the game altered after the break thanks to the introduction of Jetro Willems for Shelvey, who came on and immediately fell asleep at the very inopportune moment the very first pass was played to him. It allowed Ainsley Maitland-Niles, the man with a name like a Californian estate agent, who was bright throughout, to nip in and rampage upfield. He squared delightfully for Aubameyang who, unmarked, didn’t hesitate to find the net on the second time of asking.

Respective new signings Dani Ceballos and Allan Saint-Maximin, the man with a name like a nightclub DJ, possibly Californian, were introduced, seemingly because everyone was bored out of their minds. Arsenal’s £72 million man Nicolas Pepe soon followed. None really quickened the pulse of the game, although Saint-Maximin did have one extraordinary burst past Maitland-Niles before just kind of falling over. Probably because he was running too fast. It was that kind of game.

You wouldn’t have been able to tell given his grimaced expression deep beneath his club coat hood, but Unai Emery would have been pleased with the three points given his diluted starting lineup. Joe Willock looked promising. Granit Xhaka, in this, a low-tempo, low-energy, crippling hangover of a game of football made exactly for Granit Xhaka’s own languid stylings, quietly ran proceedings from start to finish. Which is as good a sign as any that Arsenal will have much sterner tests to come this season.

As it all petered out in the sticky, Tyneside rain, Fabian Schar deciding to shoot from 40 yards out, Bernd Leno just repeatedly steaming out of his box and heading it no-one, the opening question felt like it needed revisiting. “Is this so much different to watching a Rafa Benitez side?”

The answer, truthfully, is no. Whatever Steve Bruce’s limitations as a manager, of which, I think, there are many, they weren’t exactly on show here. Newcastle were competitive, disciplined and uninspiring. Which is basically what Newcastle have been since returning to the Premier League in 2017. A team in Mike Ashley’s own everything must go, Sports Direct sale image.

But the difference, and it’s a sizeable one, is that there is now an eternal pang of apathy with everything concerning this football club. They’ve spent money on exotic-sounding players. They’ve got a boyhood fan managing their team. They’ve played Arsenal and not got battered. So what. Who cares. Dreary, rain-soaked 1-0 defeats at home don’t mean that much when it’s not Rafa. With him, there was at least the hope, the chance, the feeling of better things to come.

Yeah, it might look the same. Stop and ask a Newcastle fan. Maybe one of the 4,000 lifelong supporters that decided not to turn up to game. Let them tell you just how different it feels.