WHERE have Newcastle United’s injury issues hit hardest this season? In attack? It’s certainly felt like that at various stages of the campaign, when Callum Wilson and Alexander Isak have been absent for lengthy spells and Eddie Howe has had to turn to a wide player or a midfielder to lead the line.

What about in the wide positions? Harvey Barnes and Jacob Murphy have both missed big chunks of the season, forcing Howe to play the same players week in, week out, running them into the ground. Midfield? In the absence of Joe Willock, Elliot Anderson and now Joelinton, Howe’s options in the central third have been pretty much non-existent. Lewis Miley is a hugely-exciting prospect, but in an ideal world, Newcastle wouldn’t be as heavily reliant on a still largely unproven 17-year-old.

Defence? The autumn absences of Sven Botman and Dan Burn were undoubtedly damaging, exposing Newcastle’s lack of depth in their centre-half position in particular. Without a natural holding midfielder, the Magpies looked vulnerable whenever their first-choice back four was ripped apart.

A case can be made for all of the above. For me, though, it’s the one area of the pitch that hasn’t been mentioned yet that has done most to disrupt Newcastle’s campaign. Of all the players that have been missing this season, I’d argue that it is Nick Pope’s shoulder injury that has caused most damage. When Pope went down in the dying seconds of December’s 1-0 win over Manchester United, the Magpies’ season took a turn for the worse.

The stats tell most of the story. When the final whistle blew against Manchester United on December 2, Newcastle were fifth in the Premier League. Today, they sit ninth. Pope has played in 20 matches this season if you include that win over Manchester United, which seems pretty reasonable given that he was on the field for 86 minutes of it, and in those games, Newcastle conceded 19 goals. That’s an average concession rate of 0.95 goals per game. Pope kept eight clean sheets before succumbing to injury.

In the two months since, Martin Dubravka has played in 13 matches and conceded 26 goals. With the Slovakian in the side, the average concession rate has leapt to exactly two goals per game. Dubravka has kept three clean sheets during his time in the side.

Clearly, making a direct comparison between the two is a somewhat inexact science. The two goalkeepers have played behind different back fours, but while defensive injuries have been an issue during Dubravka’s goalkeeping tenure, it should also be noted that Pope played for two months without Botman, arguably Newcastle’s best defender, and for a month without both the Dutchman and Burn.

Seven of the goals Dubravka has conceded came in two matches against Liverpool and Manchester City, skewing the goals-per-game ratio somewhat. Again, though, it should be noted that Pope played in two matches against Manchester City and one against Liverpool, conceding just three goals over the course of those three games, and kept clean sheets against City, AC Milan and Arsenal. To a large degree, the fixture list has pretty much evened itself out.


The evidence certainly suggests that Newcastle have been a less effective side without Pope – certainly a less defensively-secure one – with Dubravka not quite proving a like-for-like replacement.

In terms of their save percentage in the Premier League, the analytics suggest there is not a lot between the two. Dubravka’s save percentage for shots on target stands at 71.4 per cent, comfortably putting him in the top ten keepers currently starting regularly in the league. Prior to getting injured, Pope’s save percentage was 73.6 per cent. Better, but not by a huge amount.

Their post-shot expected goals stats (a measure of how they perform against the likelihood of them saving each shot they have faced) are also broadly similar. Pope’s figure stood at +3.3 prior to him getting injured, Dubravka’s currently stands at +2.7, although that is bumped up by his remarkable performance at Anfield when he made a succession of saves despite Newcastle conceding four goals.

Strip that Anfield performance out, and the figures suggest that Pope tends to make more ‘big’ saves that have the potential to change the course of the game. It certainly felt like that earlier in the season, when the England international was performing his heroics in the San Siro or producing a crucial save from Aaron Hickey in September’s one-goal home win over Brentford.

While Dubravka hasn’t committed any real howlers, it can be argued that errors have begun to creep into his game. He should have done much better with Luton’s second goal at the weekend, when he palmed the ball into the path of Ross Barkley, and was criticised for his performance in the 4-1 hammering at Tottenham.

This isn’t really meant to be a hammering of Dubravka, because he is still much better than most Premier League teams’ second-choice keeper, but he doesn’t command his area in the same way Pope does and he doesn’t seem to have the same relationship with the defenders playing in front of him. Newcastle’s back four felt comfortable pushing up with Pope behind them because they knew he would be sweeping up long balls over the top. Is there that same sense of certainty with Dubravka?

With Pope expected to be sidelined for at least another month-and-a-half, Newcastle will have to continue with Dubravka in the side. That is not a disaster, but the evidence increasingly suggests it is not ideal either. Last season, Newcastle’s defensive record was the bedrock of their success. This term, without their number one, the story has been somewhat different.