SINCE beating Manchester United at the start of December, Newcastle United have played 12 league matches. They have won three, drawn two and lost seven, conceding 31 goals in the process, at an average of more than two-and-a-half goals a game. Taken over the course of those 12 matches, the Premier League form table would have Eddie Howe’s side sitting in 16th position.

Yes, there have been away games against Tottenham, Liverpool and Arsenal in there, but there have also been home matches with Nottingham Forest, Luton and Bournemouth that Newcastle have been unable to win. So, while Saturday’s latest capitulation at the Emirates might have been, at least in part, a result of the significant improvement that has turned Arsenal into genuine title contenders this season, it cannot be written off as simply a result of Newcastle coming up against top-class opposition. This is now a rot that has well and truly set in.

Tuesday’s FA Cup fifth-round tie at Blackburn Rovers feels make-or-break in terms of the rest of the Magpies’ season, because while there are various permutations that could potentially see European qualification stretch to as low as eighth in the table this season – where Newcastle currently sit – the campaign was not meant to have turned into an unseemly squabble to achieve the best possible mid-table position.

Howe’s side are underachieving, certainly in relation to last season, when they admittedly punched above their weight, but also in terms of what could realistically be expected from the current squad, even accounting for the injury issues that have undoubtedly played a major part in torpedoing their campaign. Newcastle continue to have injuries, but aside from Nick Pope, Joelinton and Joe Willock, it is hard to come up with too many other absentees that could realistically have expected to start Saturday’s game. And given Howe’s unwavering desire to stick with his preferred 4-3-3 formation, it would probably be just one of Joelinton or Willock in midfield anyway.

While the current campaign is not yet a write-off, thoughts are inevitably turning to the summer, and the extent of the rebuilding project that is unquestionably needed. A number of fringe players will surely depart – the time has surely come for the likes of Jamaal Lascelles, Paul Dummett and Jacob Murphy to be moved on – but if, as both Howe and Darren Eales have suggested, there is still the need to sell to buy, who in the current squad should be regarded as untouchable?

Bruno Guimaraes? Not on his current form, which aside from the win at Nottingham Forest, has been moribund for quite a while. Sean Longstaff? He was valued at £50m not too long ago, but he certainly didn’t look to be worth that as he was comprehensively outplayed by Arsenal’s defenders at the weekend. Fabian Schar and Sven Botman? They were excellent last season, but their form has dipped dramatically this term and they were all over the place for much of Saturday’s game, with Arsenal’s slick attacking play punching holes in the Newcastle defence seemingly at will.

There was much that was alarming in the Magpies’ performance at the Emirates, not least the apparent lack of the kind of competitive desire that was such a hallmark of their play as they gatecrashed the top four last season, but in terms of the matches that still remain between now and the end of May, it is the collapse in defensive standards that is the most concerning development.


Collectively and individually, Newcastle are failing defensively, as evidenced by the fact they have now conceded four goals in four of their last 11 league matches.

Saturday’s capitulation, albeit at the hands of an Arsenal side who have clicked into gear superbly since the turn of the year, was repeatedly shambolic. The concession of the first goal was the result of a catalogue of errors, with Tino Livramento stabbing the ball against Sven Botman as he tried to clear off the goalline, and the second was even worse, with Botman losing Gabriel Martinelli as he darted behind the Newcastle defence and Schar wandering off aimlessly to afford Kai Havertz the freedom of the 18-yard box as he slotted home.

Botman was at fault again for Arsenal’s third goal, losing the ball cheaply in his own half to enable Havertz to slip through Bukayo Saka, who turned inside Livramento before firing home, and stand-in goalkeeper Loris Karius should probably have done better with the home side’s fourth, which saw Jakub Kiwior head home from a corner via a deflection off Lewis Miley.

“I keep saying the same thing regarding conceding goals,” said Howe. “It’s collective. Last year, we had that collective mentality that we weren’t going to concede. Even the game coming here (to Arsenal) last year, we were magnificent in collective defending from the front to the back.

“I don’t think we’ve lost the desire to do that. We’re just not as competent at the moment at doing it as we were. We need to refind that solidity.”

In terms of positives from an otherwise disappointing evening, the return of Alexander Isak and Willock at least bolsters Newcastle’s attacking options for the matches that remain. The former lasted just over an hour as he returned from a month-long lay-off, while the latter came on for the final 17 minutes as he made his first appearance since mid-November.

It was Willock, returning to north London to face his former employers, that grabbed Newcastle’s consolation with six minutes remaining, glancing home a header after Anthony Gordon sent another substitute, Dan Burn, breaking away on the overlap on the left-hand side.