2 games. 7 goals. 20th place. The start of this season has been rubbish. So rubbish in fact that this weekend's opponents have yet to score a single goal and are STILL above us in the table. Newcastle might have finished top of the Championship last season but their return to the top flight has been far from idyllic so far.
To get the Geordie perspective ahead of a fixture of increased importance for both sides we spoke to David Hatch from our Toon-touting sister site, Coming Home Newcastle.
1) What are your thoughts on Rafa as a manager? Is he the right man for Newcastle right now? Will he still be there come next summer?
I don't think there are enough positive things for me to say about Rafa being our manager. Not only is he a manager whose talent and clout are above our station, but he also has the defensive mindset and pragmatism required to ensure Newcastle progresses through the Premier League season over season. The issue, as it has been for over a decade, is in Newcastle's owner Mike Ashley, who originally assured Benitez that he would have the funds necessary to complete in the Premiership only to rescind that offer in a recent interview with Sky Sports (shameless plug: I wrote about the interview a few weeks ago).
Regarding Rafa's future, I would hope that he is still at the club this time next year, but it's more fortune than Newcastle deserves as currently constructed. Unless Ashley either sells the club or changes his stance on transfer funding, Rafa is likely gone come May.
2) You were the Championship's top goalscorers last year, yet haven't been able to find the net so far in the Premier League. Is your squad Prem-ready?
Strictly from a goalscoring perspective, the lack of goals is more likely to be the result of luck than skill - Newcastle has been middle of the road through two games in shots, but has failed to put one in the back of the net. Dwight Gayle started both matches so far after leading the team in scoring last season, but has yet to show that he has the quality to lead the attack in the Premiership. Joselu, who recently joined from Stoke, showed great skill and activity in half an hour of action against Huddersfield, putting four shots on frame and providing good link-up play. All of this being said, the passing and possession numbers have been abysmal and will need to improve if we are to make it through the season with minimal heartburn.
I don't quite think the squad is suited to do much more than survive relegation as currently constructed. The side lacks overall depth and an attacking midfielder with the quality to start in the Premier League. In a perfect world, the club would spend the last week of the transfer window targeting a creative attacking player and a starting quality left back, as the first-choice Paul Dummett is a. injured for the foreseeable future and b. is not a starting quality defender.
3) What are your strengths as team? Who are your key players?
Newcastle's biggest strength so far is in the quality of its center backs, only conceding a single goal at full strength through two matches. Additionally, Newcastle has pretty solid quality and depth on the wings, including Matt Ritchie's playmaking ability and Christian Atsu's pace and direct play.
Last season, Newcastle's success started and ended with the play of Jonjo Shelvey, who won't appear in this match courtesy of a pretty ill-advised stomp on Dele Alli's ankle in the season opener. Shelvey, not unlike Arnautovic, possesses immense talent but questionable decision-making skills, as likely in a given match to unlock the defense at will as he is to render himself useless with a hot head.
4) What are your weaknesses? How can we beat Newcastle?
As mentioned, Newcastle is lacking a creative attacking midfielder to play behind the striker. The biggest issue in the first few matches was that Gayle was left on an island with no one to connect the attack with the rest of the squad.
The key to breaking down Newcastle is to apply constant pressure on defense and devote defensive attention to Newcastle's wingers - I suspect we may see Matt Ritchie play underneath the striker while Atsu and Aarons play wide, who will provide plenty of pace and intent but little size or strength.
5) How do you think you'll set up and who will be in the 11?
If I had my way, we would see Karl Darlow; Ciaran Clark, Chancel Mbemba, Florian Lejeune, Javier Manquillo; Mikel Merino, Isaac Hayden; Rolando Aarons, Matt Ritchie, Christian Atsu; Aleksander Mitrović.
I've been supporting Newcastle for long enough to know that I won't be getting my way anytime soon, so I wouldn't be surprised to see Rob Eliot; Chancel Mbemba, Ciaran Clark, Jamaal Lascelles, Javier Manquillo; Mikel Merino, Isaac Hayden; Christian Atsu, Ayoze Perez, Matt Ritchie; Dwight Gayle
6) Finally, what's your score prediction?
Both clubs will come into the match desperate to prove that the start to the season is an unlucky patch and come away with a result, but I suspect that the match will be played to a stalemate in the end. I think the match will end 1-1 with goals coming from Chicharito and Ritchie.
Big thank you to David for taking the time to answer some questions! We did the same for him over on Coming Home Newcastle so make sure to head over there to see what they were interested in before Saturday. Make sure you catch our video - Who are ya? - featuring @Fordehavemercy