With one victory and 12 goals in 18 league matches between them, things are indeed bleak both on Tyneside and the South Coast for Newcastle United and Southampton, respectively.
It may be too early to call Saturday’s matchup at St Mary’s a six-point relegation belter, but it’s clear both sides are in desperate need of something to jump start their flagging campaigns.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
History continues to mount against Rafa Benitez and Newcastle (0-2-7), who are one of two Premier League sides without a win and off to their worst top-flight start in 120 years. The Magpies became just the fourth such team to lose their first five home games in a season following their 1-0 defeat to Brighton and Hove Albion last weekend.
The other three – Manchester United (1930-31), Portsmouth (2009-10) and Bolton Wanderers (2011-12) were all relegated.
Benitez’s frustration of not receiving help from Newcastle club owner Mike Ashley in the form of spending in multiple transfer windows gave way to outright despondency over his team’s plight after the most recent loss in which the Spaniard told The Times he hopes “to find three teams worse than us” when it comes to the upcoming relegation scrap.
Ashley was again present at the match, the fourth straight one he has attended, but the atmosphere continues to grow more toxic around St James’ Park as the supporters continue their call for him to sell the team. There was a banner with the word “contempt” written across a picture of Ashley’s laughing face outside the stadium grounds as the club – still without a trophy since 1955 – faces a potential third relegation to the Championship in Ashley’s 12 years of ownership.
Benitez, though, has not lost to the team, and still has support of the most important player of the club – talisman and centre back Jamaal Lascelles.
“I don’t think anyone in the stadium can question the manager about anything,” Lascelles stated. “Whether it’s to do with substitutions, tactics or whatever – they can’t question the manager, because he knows football better than anyone in this whole stadium.
“People might say he should have brought this or that player on, but he’s done it at the top level and won trophies, so he knows. He wants us to play a certain way and if we can’t do that as players, it’s down to us. The gaffer can only deal with what he’s got. As players we’ve got to take responsibility ourselves. We have to get together and talk about it.”
But talking about the lack of goals is not going to make them suddenly appear. Newcastle’s six goals are third-fewest in the top flight, ahead of only Crystal Palace (5) and Huddersfield Town (4), and the squandering of the two goals scored in their devastating loss at Manchester United before the international break only adds to the urgency.
Striker Salomon Rondon returned to training this week after being sidelined the last three matches with a thigh injury, but it is clear Benitez lacks quality options to lead the line as the Venezuela international, Joselu and Yoshinori Muto have combined for four of their seven goals in all competitions.
Southampton (1-3-5) are enduring a similar stretch of futility – Mark Hughes’ side are winless in their last six matches (0-3-3) in all competitions. Their scoring drought in league play reached 385 minutes after a 0-0 draw at Bournemouth last weekend in a South Coast derby, but Hughes was pleased with his team’s attacking intent as they nearly stole three points late.
“We’re not pleased with the one point, because I think we deserved more than that,” Hughes told Southampton’s official website. “I thought in terms of clear cut chances on the day, ours were obviously more clear cut and we had more potential to convert, but in the end it’s a good performance.”
Like Newcastle, the Saints have had issues at home. Southampton have three goals and two points from their four home matches, and with Hughes claiming just 14 points from his 17 matches in charge after taking over to help escape the drop last season, it is clear that there will be another such battle on his hands this term.
“Don’t underestimate the ability of Newcastle because they’re a good side, they’ve got good talent, good pace in the wide area and up to as well,” Hughes warned at his Thursday news conference to The Chronicle Live.
“We’ve got to be ready for a real tough test against Newcastle. I feel we’re ready and we’re confident in what we’re going to do – but it’s important nobody underestimate the threat Newcastle bring.”
Striker Charlie Austin appears to have done enough to retain his starting spot alongside Danny Ings, who is Southampton’s top scorer with three goals in league play and four overall. Hughes is sweating over the fitness of midfielder Mario Lemina, who was forced off against the Cherries due to a knee injury. The other concern for Lemina is he is carrying four yellow cards – the next one will result in an automatic one-match ban.
The Magpies took four points from the two meetings last year, winning 3-0 at home and settling for a 2-2 draw at St Mary’s as Manolo Gabbiadini completed his brace with a penalty on 75 minutes. Newcastle’s lone victory at Southampton in 17 Premier League matches (1-4-12) was a 2-1 triumph in 2004.
Per Ladbrokes, Southampton are solid favourites to end their winless ways and extend Newcastle’s, checking in with 21/20 odds to claim all three points. The odds of a draw are 21/10, better than the offering of the Magpies to break their duck at 14/5.
A Saints victory with less than 2.5 goals is the top option for outcomes at 14/5, narrowly edging out one with more than 2.5 goals (29/10). A 0-0 or 1-1 draw has 13/5 odds of occurring, while Newcastle victories offer nice returns for those who fancy an upset — a win with less than 2.5 goals has 11/2 odds, and one of over 2.5 goals has 13/2.
Oddsmakers are also fairly confident Southampton are going to score first is if there is a goal as all four Saints strikers are listed ahead of the no goal-scoring option. Ings unsurprisingly leads the line at 9/2, edging out Austin at 5/1. Gabbiadini and Shane Long lurk behind the pair, both at 11/2, while Newcastle’s trio of forwards — Joselu, Rondon and Muto — all have 15/2 odds to give the Magpies a surprise 0-1 scoreline.
At 7/4, Ings again edges Austin (4/1) as the top option, this time in the any-time goal-scorers, and Gabbiadini and Long are again paired together at 11/5. Joselu and Rondon are also a tandem for Newcastle at 14/5 odds, edging out Muto (3/1)
If a tree falls at St Mary’s and doesn’t make a sound, did it actually score a goal?
This will be a curious encounter, not for the aesthetics by any stretch of the imagination, but whether either Hughes or Benitez — or both of them — decide to actually play enterprising football and go for three points to try and kick on to this season.
Benitez’s comments after the loss to Brighton are particularly worrisome because for the first time, it showed the grind of trying to scratch out a result every week is taking a toll on him. The fans love him, his players love him, but he’s not going to care nor feel the love until the Magpies are in the win column. Until either one of the aforementioned strikers or one of his attacking midfielders in Kenedy, Ayoze Perez or Matt Ritchie find the back of the net, Newcastle will continue to take on the characteristics of a self-loathing club that cannot get of their own way, and the supporters are going to melt down right with them.
Then there are Southampton, whom this space remains convinced made the wrong decision in retaining Hughes. As The National pointed out, Hughes rate of points per match is now worse than predecessor Mauricio Pellegrino’s, and “Sparky” has done little to instill confidence that rate is going to have a significant uptick in the short or medium-term future because Saints have only played Liverpool and Chelsea among the big six.
And those defeats were 3-0 setbacks that could have had a much worse scoreline, Liverpool barely needed to get out of second gear in their match, and Chelsea were two to the good before the hour. While Newcastle failed to get a point in the five matches they have played against those perennials, they at least doggedly made the opposition work to claim their three points.
Southampton have ebbed and flowed in quality during this winless streak without showing much overall. Yes, the Saints did play better against Bournemouth, but they set the bar so low in the loss to Chelsea before the break, almost anything would have looked better.
This is a match that could turn on creativity, which means it would be an ideal time for Newcastle midfielder Jonjo Shelvey to find the killer pass forward that potentially separates these teams. But the Magpies are so deep in the muck right now, one fears even converting a penalty would be only a 50-50 proposition as opposed to the usual 80-20 minimum chance of success.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Southampton 0, Newcastle United 0.
OTHER MATCH DAY 10 PREVIEWS:
Brighton and Hove Albion (3-2-4) vs. Wolverhampton (4-3-2)
Burnley (2-2-5) vs. Chelsea (6-3-0)
Manchester United (4-2-3) vs. Everton (4-3-2)
Tottenham Hotspur (7-0-2) vs. Manchester City (7-2-0)