STEVE BRUCE spent most of last month describing the January transfer period as a “difficult window”. Increasingly, when it comes to Newcastle United, it looks like having been a disastrous one.

The Magpies’ three loan additions have added precious little, indeed it could be argued their hurried promotion to the starting line-up has taken the club backwards. And the overriding problem that has afflicted Bruce’s side all season, namely a chronic inability to threaten in the attacking positions, remains unsolved. As a result, the veneer of stability that was apparent at the turn of the year has long since disappeared.

True, Newcastle remain seven points clear of the bottom three, a safety cushion that is likely to remain intact when 18th-placed West Ham United visit runaway leaders Liverpool this evening. But having dropped another place as they were brushed aside by Crystal Palace at the weekend, it would be a mistake for anyone associated with the Magpies to assume that relegation is impossible. On current trends, it will not take long for things to become markedly more fraught.

In their last nine matches, Newcastle have managed just six goals, only one of which was scored by a forward player. Just as worryingly, they have mustered just 24 attempts on target in those nine games, a deeply alarming statistic that gets to the bottom of their plight. Earlier in the season, they were masking their lack of a cutting edge through a combination of disciplined defending, effective attacking at set-pieces and the occasional slice of luck. Now, it feels as though reality has finally caught up with them.

Why on earth didn’t they recruit another attacker in January? Joelinton has been a liability all season, yet Bruce continues to doggedly defend him while persistently refusing to drop him from the side. Clearly, he wants his £40m man to come good, but by continuing to rely on the Brazilian as his lone striker, the Newcastle boss merely serves to further accentuate the lack of alternative options available to him.

Andy Carroll has made four league starts all season and continues to be sidelined by a hip problem Newcastle’s medical staff are struggling to get to the bottom of. Dwight Gayle, a second-half substitute at the weekend, has started just twice all season, and while he might well find himself leading the line against Burnley this weekend, Bruce clearly harbours deep reservations about his ability to stay fit and score goals. Yoshinori Muto? He wasn’t even named in the matchday 18 at Selhurst Park.

It is ridiculous that a Premier League club is relying on such threadbare resources, yet given an opportunity to try to address the situation in January, Bruce opted to keep his powder dry. An interest in Jarrod Bowen was shelved once West Ham got serious with their own bidding, and while Newcastle were seemingly willing to pay £35m for Lille attacking midfielder Boubakary Soumare, they quickly decided there was no available striker worth pursuing. That seems hard to believe given how badly they need another body. Cenk Tosun, who was offered to Newcastle before joining Crystal Palace on loan from Everton, would surely have been better than nothing.

“You can’t just say that we needed to sign a striker (in the transfer window) because a lot of clubs were in the same situation and I have said many, many times that there wasn’t anybody out there who would have made us any better,” countered Bruce. “So what was the point?

“Dwight hasn’t been available to us all season which has been a bit of a blow. We’ve got to February and he hasn’t really kicked a ball for us, so let’s hope he stays fit now because he is an alternative to what we’ve got. He’s always been a very good goalscorer - let’s hope he stays fit.

“But over the last two months you know the problems we’ve had and we haven’t hidden away from them. We’re getting a few back, but strikers need a bit of service, too. We don’t cross it enough.”

While they did not sign a striker, Newcastle did recruit Danny Rose, Valentino Lazaro and Nabil Bentaleb on loan last month. It is safe to say that a month or so into their Magpies careers, none have been a roaring success.

Rose looks short of both match fitness and motivation, with his laboured display at the weekend having followed a similarly one-paced showing against Arsenal. Bentaleb has now made five Newcastle appearances, and it is hard to see what he is offering that was not already available from the rest of the Magpies’ midfield options.

Indeed, it could be argued that by displacing Matt Ritchie and Isaac Hayden from the starting line-up, Rose and Bentaleb have dragged down Newcastle’s performance levels by depriving their side of two of its most committed and energetic performers. They might not be the greatest footballers in the world, but Ritchie and Hayden are passionately-devoted professionals who epitomise much of the spirit and resolve that have made the Magpies so successful in the last few years. Like Gayle, they should return this weekend.

Lazaro has shown flashes of ability in the last two games, but his defensive limitations were exposed in the second half of the defeat at Arsenal and he was dismissed in the closing stages of Saturday’s loss as he hauled down Wilfriend Zaha to prevent the Palace winger breaking clear. Admittedly, it is still early days, but the Austrian’s arrival has hardly been transformative so far.

“That’s always a problem,” said Bruce, when asked whether a lack of game time at their previous clubs was hampering the January signings’ ability to hit the ground running. “I think it’s pretty evident. When you come into the Premier League, game time is a vital ingredient. We understand that. They’ll only get better, I’m sure of it.” Which of course begs the question of why they were signed in the first place.

The upshot is that Newcastle have now lost two games by a cumulative score of 5-0 in the space of a week, a margin that would have been much greater were it not for the goalkeeping heroics of Martin Dubravka at Selhurst Park.

The Slovakian, who has been Newcastle’s most consistent performer all season, produced two sensational saves in the opening 16 minutes to deny first Gary Cahill and then Scott Dann as the Palace centre-halves powered in headers from corners.

The Magpies’ vulnerability from set-pieces was apparent from the off, yet they continued to concede a succession of unnecessary free-kicks and were duly punished a minute before the break.

Fabian Schar’s mistimed challenge afforded Patrick van Aanholt a shooting opportunity from 20 yards, and the former Sunderland full-back stepped up to hammer a direct strike past Dubravka’s right hand.

Palace twice came close to doubling their lead at the start of the second half, with Jordan Ayew hitting the post after some neat footwork in the box and Cahill directing another header narrowly wide of the upright, but it always felt as though one goal would prove sufficient for a home win.

So it proved, with Newcastle’s best second-half moment coming to nothing when Vicente Guaita tipped Schar’s long-range effort over the crossbar.

A speculative 30-yard strike from a centre-half. At the moment, that is pretty much all the Magpies can muster.