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Soccer

Newcastle United Is Almost There

Allan Saint-Maximin of Newcastle United reacts after a missed sho during the Premier League match between Newcastle United and Manchester City at St. James Park on August 21, 2022 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Usually, the climb towards the top half of the Premier League is a slow and grueling process. The journey relies on near-infinite amounts of transfer prowess, good management, and, maybe most of all, luck. Teams outside of England’s historic elite need all of these things to go from relegation side to mid-table staple to contender for European slots. Barring that, they need a lot of money, so much money that it becomes only a matter of time before they arrive on the most prestigious scene in European soccer.

Newcastle United has all of that money, and on Sunday, the Magpies burst through the wall and into the the rarefied air at the top reaches of the Premier League table in style:

It’s not just that Newcastle drew the high-flying death machine that is Manchester City. It’s that, for large swaths of the match, Newcastle actively dominated City, siphoning energy from a home crowd that finally has a team worth a damn after years in the hinterlands. That’s what influxes of money can make a possibility, and thanks to a 2021 takeover by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, Newcastle has more money in its reserves than anyone else, by a large margin.

But money doesn’t come with happiness—it has to go out and buy it first. And usually the shopping process takes a while. Yet in less than a year, Newcastle has already made the jump from relegation candidates all the way into the West Ham-Wolves-Leicester City tier of clubs that usually do not worry about relegation, and instead can try nipping at the heels of the Big Six. To make that jump, Newcastle has had to both develop its current players and hit on transfer signings at a good rate. That the club also hired Eddie Howe and let him install his philosophy hasn’t hurt.

Back to Sunday: It looked early on like yet another Man City beatdown of an under-talented side, as Ilkay Gündoğan continued his impressive goal-scoring run of the last couple of seasons by notching an early opener. City running roughshod is the most well-run narrative in the Premier League, particularly against teams not of the Big Six persuasion, so this looked about par for the course. But rather than follow the typical script by folding, Newcastle took the goal personally, and proceeded to wallop City with attacks for the remainder of the first half.

The key man, both for good and for bad, was former MLS man Miguel Almirón. The Paraguayan attacker hasn’t been all he seemed to be when he moved to England after a couple of seasons as the best MLS player, but on Sunday, he showed why he still gets starts for a team with high ambitions. He constantly found himself around the box during Newcastle’s ascendancy, and probably should have scored an earlier goal on this golden chance that he skied:

That miss might’ve taken the wind out of Newcastle’s sails, but it didn’t. Instead, Almirón got another chance in the 28th minute, right in the center of the box from an Allan Saint-Maximin cross that the Paraguayan redirected into the net using his cultured right, uh, thigh:

If Almirón was the fulcrum of the early going, it was Saint-Maximin, long Newcastle’s best player and now simply a very good one, that truly set the gears in motion. Just 11 minutes after that cross for the first goal, Saint-Maximin again cut through City’s defense like butter, only to weave a cross-box pass to Callum Wilson, who flicked the first touch away from his body before notching a sublime finish to give Newcastle the lead:

On the other side of half-time, Kieran Trippier doubled Newcastle’s advantage with a vintage free kick, one that called back to his days at Tottenham and one that gave Newcastle hope that its winning position was no fluke:

It really wasn’t, even though City roared back with two goals in just under four minutes. After all, when an opponent has Kevin De Bruyne, it’s hard to hold on to anything. Closing out a game like Sunday’s is one of the remaining rungs on the ladder Newcastle is sprinting up, but there’s no shame in a draw against City, especially not one in which Newcastle brought the game to the most elite of elite clubs.

This wasn’t a gritty 0–0 result where the underdog held on by sheer will and determination. This was an elite team running into very good opposition, and the opposition only folded without breaking. Newcastle isn’t quite there yet, if “there” is meant to be a party crasher into the Champions League slots. There’s no guarantee it will ever get there, though with some good talent identification and perhaps a truly world-class goal-scorer and center back to pair with world-class midfielder Bruno Guimarães—the team’s true talisman, purchased after the Saudi takeover and immediately plugged in as such—it could make a similar leap to what City did at the start of the 2010s.

Regardless of whether Newcastle ever makes it to the very top—I would not bet against it, given the quite literally endless reserve of money that comes with a Saudi sportswashing operation—the club has elevated itself over the last year or so from a prime candidate to take a trip to the Championship and into an upper-mid-table side capable of fighting anyone. The pace of that rise—or in this case a return to where the club had been a couple decades ago—will surely irk those against the idea of a foreign petrostate injecting billions into a club, just as it has for City, but there’s no denying that it works. The rest of the Premier League should prepare now, because Newcastle is on the verge of becoming yet another player in England’s elite.

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Cut It Out, Kevin