Newcastle United had a relatively sluggish start to their Premier League campaign, with only four goals and a sole victory over Tottenham Hotspur to show for some determined, if uninspired, performances.
This was to be expected after a summer of upheaval and the relatively short time in which Steve Bruce had to prepare his new charges for a challenging set of opening fixtures.
Then came a watershed moment in the Magpies' season. A dismal display in the 5-0 drubbing at Leicester City seemed to confirm many fans' worst fears about the club's prospects under Bruce, with the chief concern being: where are the goals going to come from?
Defenders stepping into the breach
The club has traditionally looked to one or two strikers as their main source of goals and recent Premier League campaigns have been built on the success of Demba Ba, Papiss Cissé and the recently departed Ayoze Perez and Salomon Rondon.
This season, however, there are no proven options upfront, despite the significant transfer fee exchanged for young striker Joelinton.
The Brazilian has enjoyed a mixed start to the season, linking up well and scoring once in the win at Spurs but often left isolated up top.
Yoshinori Muto has shown bright sparks at times but has not seriously threatened defences when coming off the bench, leading to speculation of a January departure.
Dwight Gayle may have been instrumental in the Championship winning season but has since struggled with injury and form, failing to prove he is a reliable Premier League asset.
Meanwhile, Andy Carroll has yet to get a decent run of games under his belt on his return to his boyhood club and is too injury-prone to solve the team’s scoring troubles single-handedly.
Despite the best efforts of exciting talents Allan Saint-Maximin and Miguel Almiron, who are inexplicably yet to register their first goals for the club, the team were badly in need of goals and thus had to look to other sources to start winning matches.
The thrashing at Leicester has proved to be just the catalyst for a potentially season-defining turnaround. After a morale-boosting defeat of Manchester United - thanks to homegrown midfielder Matty Longstaff - and a narrow loss at Chelsea, the Magpies have gone on to score six goals in three games, achieving back-to-back wins in the process.
Remarkably, five of those goals came from defenders. Even more remarkably, Fabian Schär wasn’t one of them. Captain Jamaal Lascelles, Ciaran Clark, Federico Fernandez and DeAndre Yedlin have all stepped up to score vital goals that may go some way to Newcastle avoiding relegation next May.
Clark, in particular, has had a huge impact since coming into the team in place of Paul Dummett, a decision which Bruce deserves great credit for, and he will become a key player for the team during Jamaal Lascelles’ three-month absence.
Attacking from the back?
The goal-scoring success of their defenders does not seem to have been deliberately planned, but rather a result of the whole team attacking as a unit and taking responsibility after some mixed performances.
Four of their goals have come from set-pieces this season, while five of the six goals scored over the past three matches were the result of crosses into the box.
This seems to be a case of Bruce assessing his squad and playing to their strengths: a number of talented crossers of the ball such as Jetro Willems and Jonjo Shelvey coupled with the height and aerial ability of Lascelles, Clark and Fernandez, as well as Schär and Florian Lejeune who are returning to fitness.
This has allowed Newcastle’s three central defenders to cause all sorts of problems by coming up for set pieces and, more importantly, staying in an around the 18-yard box after the first ball has been cleared, capitalising on their markers not picking them up.
In terms of overall play, however, it has been the forward line that has still caused opposition defences the most problems and will be key to the side’s future success.
Saint-Maximin and Almiron have been incredibly unlucky not to open their accounts already, using their blistering pace on the counter to drag the team up the pitch and get in behind the defence.
So far, it is only their finishing that has let them down and Bruce will be hoping it is only a matter of time before the pair turn their hard work and guile into goals.
Magpies struggling to dominate possession
Despite their recent upturn in form, their style of play has remained relatively the same, relying on soaking up pressure and counterattacking whenever possible.
It was a tactic that worked superbly in wins against Man United, West Ham and Bournemouth, however, led to the team failing to get three points in home games over Wolverhampton Wanderers and Watford.
In an eye-opening study released by the CIES Football Observatory, Newcastle are the second-worst team in European football for dominating their opposition in possession, having an average of only 75 passes per match in the final third.
In terms of conceding ground, they have let their opponents make an average of 175 passes per match in their own defensive third. Only Hamilton Academical have a worse ratio than the Magpies in allowing the opposing side to dominate the ball.
This is clearly down to their style of play, with Almiron and Saint-Maximin relying on pace and long passes to get up the pitch and create chances.
This is very effective away from St James’ Park, but on home turf, this tactic seems ineffective, particularly against sides that also like to sit back and break on the counter, such as Wolves.
According to Whoscored, the side are averaging 38% possession this season, which is the lowest in the Premier League. Despite this cautious approach, their defensive stats are not outstanding and have only earned them three clean sheets so far.
This is unlikely to encourage a change in system but will certainly be something Bruce will want to address in the near future.
Steve Bruce will know his side still has plenty to improve on, both in defence and attack, and he is yet to have a fully fit squad to play with.
However, the team is undoubtedly showing signs of improvement and if Saint-Maximin and Almiron can start getting amongst the goals the pressure may begin to lift from Joelinton’s shoulders.
The team cannot expect defenders such as Clark and Fernandez, who were fringe players at the start of the season, to continue contributing goals and assists on a regular basis, while the injury to Jamaal Lascelles will also reduce their threat from set-pieces.
The team have ridden their luck at times and are perhaps fortunate to find themselves in mid-table, especially after their difficult run of fixtures so far.
Yet the most important thing the team will take into the busy festive period will certainly be their growing confidence. Steve Bruce is finally beginning to create a feelgood factor around his boyhood club and this will be far more valuable to the side’s development than any statistic.