GIVEN where they were at this time last year, Newcastle United can be proud of what they achieved in 2017. The fear, however, is that 2018 will see all that good work unravel and end with the club back in a state of considerable chaos in the Championship.

A Happy New Year? It didn’t feel like one at the weekend as Newcastle’s shortcomings were once again laid bare.

Rafael Benitez’s side weren’t awful against Brighton, but then there have been precious few occasions this season when they have been completely outclassed. Newcastle’s players worked hard enough, were well organised and kept going to the final whistle in search of a breakthrough. Again, their attitude and professionalism have not been an issue all season.

Loading article content

The brutal reality is that they are simply not good enough, and unless that changes in this month’s transfer window – a period that already looks like turning into the kind of pantomime saga that Newcastle have made their speciality over recent years – it is becoming increasingly difficult to see how the Magpies can stave off the threat of relegation in the second half of the season.

They ended 2017 one point clear of the bottom three, having failed to win any of their last six home games. That they only managed to score two goals in those six matches – both of which came in a defeat to Leicester City – says much for their plight.

If you can’t score goals, you tend to get relegated, and Newcastle’s season is beginning to look a lot like the campaign that saw Middlesbrough drop out of the top-flight last term. A newly-promoted club, boasting plenty of effort and endeavour, that start the season with a couple of eye-catching wins. Rapidly, however, the goals dry up, and while the sides around them flicker into life, their failure to pick up sufficient victories sees them slide inexorably towards the drop zone. Just as Middlesbrough were unable to arrest that decline last spring, so Newcastle increasingly look incapable of turning things around.

The quality simply isn’t there, and while the likes of Jonjo Shelvey, Matt Ritchie and Dwight Gayle might have been star turns in the Championship last season, their limitations at the highest level have become glaringly apparent.

Perhaps the most damning indictment of Newcastle’s current situation was inadvertently provided by Brighton centre-half Shane Duffy, when he spoke after Saturday’s stalemate. “You look at their team against us, and it was basically the Championship side from last year,” he said. And therein lies the problem.

While Brighton and Huddersfield have added smatterings of quality to the teams that clambered out of the second tier last season – the Seagulls’ summer signing, Pascal Gross, was the best attacking player on the pitch by a distance at the weekend – Newcastle’s pre-season recruitment was both inadequate and ill-conceived. Benitez’s most expensive recruit, Jacob Murphy, can barely get a game, while the likes of Joselu and Javier Manquillo turned up on Tyneside because no one else wanted them.

The result is a rag-tag squad lacking both depth and quality. Benitez knows its limitations, hence his urgings about the need to spend next month. Yet just as his pleas fell on deaf ears in the summer, so there is every chance he will once again be left frustrated when the transfer window closes at the end of the month.

Weekend reports suggesting Amanda Staveley’s proposed takeover is on the verge of collapse set the alarm bells ringing, and with a resolution far from imminent, talk of a £30m advance for January spending has gone worryingly silent. For now, Ashley remains in charge of the cheque book, and all available evidence suggests that will mean little or no meaningful transfer activity in the next four weeks.

There is every chance Benitez will have to rely on the current squad in the second half of the season, and that is an alarming prospect. Newcastle remain defensively secure, with Jamaal Lascelles and Ciaran Clark combining effectively at the weekend to limit Brighton to a handful of goalscoring opportunities.

But the Magpies’ midfield is both ponderous and predictable, while their attack is lightweight and ineffective. Mikel Merino’s impressive early-season form has deserted him, Ritchie looks a pale imitation of the player who was so impressive in the top-flight with Bournemouth, and Gayle lacks the sharpness and finesse required to succeed at the highest level. Joselu might put in the hard yards, but looks every inch a player who has managed just three goals in 20 appearances this season.

“The last three games, you can’t question the commitment, as you haven’t been able to all season,” said Isaac Hayden, who returned to the starting line-up at the weekend. “Everyone leaves everything out there on the pitch, we never leave the pitch with regrets.

“The Premier League for me is the best league in the world, and the players in it are top drawer. Sometimes, it can be one mistake or one amazing piece of skill like the world-class Arsenal goal we conceded, and that’s the game done. Games are decided on fine margins, and it’s important we push the margin back towards us rather than against us.”

There was never much chance of Saturday’s game swinging decisively in either direction, with the two sides cancelling themselves out from an early stage of proceedings. It felt like a Championship match in all but name, and it would hardly be a surprise if both teams found themselves back in the second tier by August.

Brighton shaded the first half, and would have taken the lead had Duffy directed his header from Gross’ corner an inch or so under the crossbar rather than two inches above it.

Newcastle’s best chance came shortly before the hour mark, and saw Brighton goalkeeper Matt Ryan produce a superb one-handed save to keep out Gayle’s glanced header from Christian Atsu’s cross.

Karl Darlow made a decent save himself from a Lewis Dunk header, but a stalemate looked inevitable long before the final whistle heralded a chorus of boos from the home supporters.

“If you said to anyone connected with Newcastle United last January 1st that we’d be standing here at the end of the year, in the position we’re in, everyone would have bitten your hand off,” said Hayden. “We’ve seen how difficult it is to get out of the Championship for the teams that have been relegated this season, with Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Hull.

“It’s not easy to get out of that division, but we did that and then we had a good start to the season in the Premier League. Yes, we’ve had a couple of bad months, but we’re a young group and we’re still learning and getting better. I’m sure in the second half of the season, you’ll see a better Newcastle United.”

For the sake of everyone connected with the Magpies, that assessment had better be right.