NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 05: Steven Taylor (L) and Tim Krul (R) of Newcastle United celebrate their sides 2-1 victory at the final whistle during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Everton at St James' Park on November 5, 2011 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo by Michael Steele/Newcastle United)
Newcastle sit in third place in the Premier League 11 games into the season, and when the international break is over, they face a murderer's row of fixtures: Manchester City (A), Manchester United (A), and Chelsea (H). What can we expect from that 3-game set? In order to answer that question, I believe we first have to address one that people all over the football world have been asking and answering for at least a few weeks now:
Are Newcastle for real?
Sometimes, the answer is a quick and dismissive "no," and sometimes the answerer articulates a more nuanced response, but the important thing is that the question is being asked in the first place. Remember August 31, when Newcastle failed to grab another striker at the deadline and all of Newcastle went nuts? Yeah, me too. The Era of Good Feelings on Tyneside has lasted just slightly longer than the Occupy Wall Street movement. In other words, nobody saw 25 points from the first 11 fixtures coming, and if you claim that you did, you're lying. This very blog that you're reading got a bit of attention for being "overly optimistic" (Read: We weren't necessarily grabbing our torches and pitchforks fast enough for some people) and there's no way we would have dared dream that the Toon would go unbeaten into October, much less November.
That's what makes the "Newcastle haven't played anybody" argument disingenuous, at least to my biased eyes. It's not like anybody expected them to take on all comers and emerge with points every single time. Yes, the schedule has been relatively soft. Only 3 of the teams they have faced are in the top half (same number as Aston Villa, 1 less than Manchester City, Chelsea, and Fulham), and all 3 of those matches have ended in draws. I guess it comes down to what people hear when they hear the question, and really it comes down to expectations. Here are three ways I imagine that the question in question could be interpreted:
1. Are Newcastle for real? (Are they title contenders?)
This is how I imagine that supporters of The Sky Six hear this question. (By the way if at any point you think I'm beating up on a strawman, come to the US. There are a ton of fans here that know a lot about the big clubs while the rest remain an indistinguishable blur to them.) These supporters are used to speaking in terms of title contention, not stopping very often to empathize with clubs that wouldn't dare dream of such a thing. In this case, the distinction between "real" and "fake" is whether or not there's a valuable chance the team hoists a trophy in May. To me, this is a false dichotomy and doesn't help the conversation. By the way, the answer to this question is a resounding "No," as if you needed to be told.
2. Are Newcastle for real? (Are they really a third place team?)
Of course, you can replace the current table position as necessary. Imagine you don't pay attention to much of the game action each weekend, but you're aware enough to check the table once a week. What's this - Newcastle in third? Surely they're not a third place team, right? Well, if I'm being pedantic, and I often am, the likelihood of any given team ending the season in the exact place they find themselves on November 9 has to be incredibly small. I do understand the question, though. Are Newcastle as good as the results show? Well, given that the schedule has been favorable and they've played above expectations, it's unlikely that they will finish at or above their current position. In that sense, I understand the question, but a binary yes or no response also doesn't give them credit for what they've accomplished. That leads me to what I believe the fairest question is...
3. Are Newcastle for real? (Are they better than we thought they were?)
Is this a case of relaxing standards in order to give my favorite team some credit? I don't believe so. Saying that Newcastle aren't title contenders or a third place team doesn't tell us much. Even if they were to accomplish the highly improbable and win all three of their upcoming matches, that's still an unthinkable prospect. However, we do learn a few things when we realize that 11-game unbeaten streaks do mean something in the Premier League, regardless of the perceived lack of schedule strength. Also, you wouldn't want to concede 8 goals in 11 games against League One level competition, but you take that defensive dominance in the Premier League every time. Riding the strength of Tim Krul in goal and a superb central defense (The Fabricio Coloccini - Steven Taylor - Cheik Tiote triangle is one of the stories of the year, if you ask me), Newcastle have the ability to limit the number of goals they concede, and have indeed allowed more than 1 goal only once. It sounds extremely elementary, and it is, but that brand of football allows a team to turn losses into draws and draws into wins while preventing the opposite from happening, as it did so often for the Toon in 2010-11.
In other words, yes, Newcastle are better than you thought they were, Dennis Green, and they should be all season long. They weren't the most popular pick for relegation, but many thought they would struggle to the end for safety, especially after the summer transfer window slammed shut. Are Newcastle for real? They could take 9 points from the next 3 and I would believe that they were. They could also take 0 points from that stretch and I would answer the same way, because to me the question is not about whether or not they can finish on top or even in third place. It's about whether they're the sort of team that can exceed our expectations.