There is a famous nursery rhyme about magpies. You've probably heard it – or have sung it to a small child – but let's go over the start as a quick reminder. “One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy…”
It goes on in this vein for several more verses; there are wishes, kisses, surprises, secrets and even a brush with the devil. Most bases are covered… but what if you see the same magpie twice in a row? What does that represent?
Perhaps the presence of Rafael Benítez, which brings us neatly to his Newcastle United side who, after 31 Premier League games, have the exact same number of points, goals, and goals conceded as last season.
Three wins in their last five league games has got them to this surreptitious stage, and has given the Magpies from the North East a seven-point cushion above the relegation zone.
Benítez's team badly needed a good run of form after their abysmally slow start to the campaign, where it took them 11 matches to clinch their first win.
And, strangely, not only is their league record identical to this stage last season, but their underlying statistics are also pretty similar.
|Season||Expected goals for (per game)||Expected goals against (per game)||Expected goals difference|
So has Benítez really managed to put together exactly the same season as he did last year? Let's take a look at the evidence.
There are even more metrics where Newcastle look eerily familiar. Their spells of possession last the same amount of time (7.7 seconds on average against 7.65 seconds this year) and they have the same average number of passes per possession sequence too (2.97 vs 2.95). Even how often and where they win possession back are virtually the same.
Possession won in...
|Season||...defensive third||...middle third||...attacking third||Total|
It's little wonder then Newcastle fans feel like the club is in something of a rut, off the pitch more than on it, it should be mentioned. But one of the things that Tyneside hopes will get them out of that is Miguel Almirón.
The Paraguayan arrived — continuing a tradition of big players from minor South American countries making their mark in the North East — to great fanfare in January. Since late February, he’s been a regular starter.
Newcastle are indeed a different entity in this run of games but they haven’t played a varied run of fixtures. Huddersfield, Burnley, West Ham, Everton, and Bournemouth are a relatively friendly run of matches.
Even with that in mind, the signs are promising. Before Almirón established himself as a starter, Newcastle averaged 0.44 less expected goals than their opponents each game. Since then, they’ve averaged 0.87 expected goals more than their opponents per game.
Even taking into account the strength of their fixture schedule, that’s pretty good. For example, Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjær have been averaging +0.51 in their extended honeymoon period.
It would be silly to put this all on the addition of Almirón to the team — he just acts as a convenient marker in the club’s form — but the change is significant.
The snapshot of the league table at 31 games tells the story of a team standing still, but we’ve just pointed out that that’s not the case.
So Newcastle fans can look at this in two ways.
If they're a glass-half-empty person, the focus will be on the fact the Magpies took a step backwards at the start of this season and were doing significantly worse than in 2017/18.
However, if they're of a more optimistic disposition, the focus should be on the recent run. Things are looking up and there’s still time for the Tyneside club to improve even further.