In a cagey game which could have spun in either direction Newcastle were the first team to land a knockout punch on Friday night.
Van Aanholt and Jordan Ayew had glorious chances to strike what would have been almost certain winners. Indeed, had it not been for Karl Darlow it would have Palace celebrating a precious three points
Fortunately for Newcastle, it was they who managed to land the first punch, with Callum Wilson poking the ball in between Guaita’s legs for the opener with only three minutes remaining.
Steve Bruce deserves ‘better late than never’ kind of credit for switching from 5-4-1 to the 4-4-2 that has earned Newcastle their best results this season. Joelinton looked far more at ease with a striking partner and linked up nicely with Callum Wilson for Newcastle’s opening goal. He would later add a goal of his own thanks in no small part to Gary Cahills deflection.
If Joelinton is to finally become something like the man who cost £40m (stop laughing) it appears that this formation will be his best route. Indeed, Joelinton had one of his best games for Newcastle with his willingness to battle with Palaces’ hefty centre halves was a particular highlight.
And yet he still frustrated supporters with his punching power, as a succession of weak, poorly directed shots provided catching practice for Guaita.
He still lacked the aggression and finishing instinct of a striker but if he’s looking for inspiration he needn’t look far as Callum Wilson further demonstrated why he is Newcastle’s best striker since Demba Ba with another clinical display in front of goal. Seven precious Premier League goals in ten games points to £20m very well spent.
Yet whilst Joelinton is on an upward curve, the same cannot be said for Jeff Hendrick who was as anonymous as usual.
An incident about 27 minutes into the first half perhaps summed up his contribution to the match and his contribution to Newcastle so far, whilst facing the onrushing Eberechi Eze, Henrick managed to back away from him so much that Javier Manquillo – his right back – had to come in front of him in order to make the tackle.
Eze was admittedly lively, but a photo which appeared to show Hendrick running away from Eze could not have given Eze – or any footballer for that matter – appropriate credit.
Fans of the movie ‘Tenet’ who saw the photo could only have concluded that Jeff Hendrick had been ‘inverted’ as part of a Steve Bruce temporal pincer movement. It would have certainly made more sense than playing 5-4-1. Yet, whilst Bruce’s ability to reverse the entropy of time remains unchallenged in this article, I should – for the sake of appearances – humour the alternative proposal; that Jeff Hendrick wasn’t very good.
Now this is a tricky proposal to handle, because it requires considering what a ‘good’ performance looks like for Jeff Hendrick. His qualities have remained well hidden, mainly because this is how he seems to like it.
It was only three weeks prior the match that Opta data had revealed something extraordinary: During Newcastle’s first eight league games of the season, Jeff Hendrick had averaged 0.5 tackles per game, a grand total of four. He had started every game. This represents a problem for most players, but it’s a serious problem for Jeff Hendrick whose limitations are by now familiar to most Newcastle supporters.
Of course, it would be cruel to rank Hendrick against criteria that he hasn’t been designed to fill. He isn’t particularly quick so it’s wrong to expect him to break into space, he isn’t skilful so it’s unfair to expect him to beat his man and he isn’t a goal scorer despite his early attempt to fool everyone. He has always been a functional player, a grafter who does the tasks that you won’t see featured on Match of the Day.
But as in any walk of life, the people who survive by doing basics tasks are always vulnerable to being replaced. Out of the players on Newcastle’s bench on Friday; Ritchie, Murphy and Matty Longstaff could have offered something more, Ritchie for his delivery, Murphy for his pace and Matty for his raw enthusiasm.
Crucially, they would have all covered what Hendrick might consider to be his selling points, his USP’s; whether it’s his work rate, stamina or willingness to do whatever task is asked of him.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that these are the qualities that have earned Hendrick the adoration of Bruce, his national manager Steven Kenny and caused the normally frugal Sean Dyche to part with over ten million pounds. He could argue that he’s made his career from them.
But what is he without them? After all, closing a player down, getting a tackle in and showing for the ball are such rudimentary skills in the footballers arsenal that it’s reasonable to suggest that every player at almost any level should be able to fulfil them. And it is fair to question what a player does for 90 minutes if he doesn’t display them.
And what does he add to the team when his performance ‘ceiling’ is so low that there is a legitimate claim that a 20-year-old academy prospect could add more than him?
Indeed, with Ryan Fraser and Allan Saint-Maximin soon to return it surely can’t be long before Hendrick finds himself lost on the bench as opposed to being lost on the pitch.
But hey, it’s Newcastle.