Is it already do or die for Newcastle United?
St James’ Park briefly stirred. For the first 45 minutes, Newcastle United showed up their glamorous visitors, Arsenal. It was an encouraging half, but a curling Granit Xhaka free-kick and a coy strike from Mesut Ozil shortly before the hour dashed any idea of an upset.
Rafael Benitez’s side, for all their promising play, were toothless going forward. That they wilted in the second half is no surprise given the Magpies' torrid start to the season. With just one point from their opening five games, alarm bells will be ringing, even though they faced four of the big six Brushing off this early stupor as a consequence of a gruelling fixture list would be dangerous. Newcastle are fast approaching do-or-die.
On the surface, United's defeats to Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal look respectable - all ended 2-1. Whereas this scoreline suggests a closely fought contest, the reality was anything but. Rather than confronting the challenge with energy, vigour and bravery, Benitez opted to dampen affairs by using deep, dense lines to barricade the goalposts. There was none of the fight and vibrancy which is historically associated with Newcastle.
The argument for this approach says that any point against the 'big boys' is a bonus, and it's better to lose by a deficit of one, rather than convincingly, in order to strive for respectable goal differential. Indeed, doing so helped the Magpies finish 10th last campaign, with a superior goal difference to every team below them.
Newcastle's tactic was fine 12 months ago; however, the Premier League has evolved once again. Where Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion both looked destined for a relegation battle last season, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Fulham have adapted quickly. Neither newly-promoted side will be drawn into the survival scrap. Furthermore, teams which fought tooth and nail for points last campaign - Watford, Bournemouth and Southampton - all seem much more assured having elevated their level.
There would have been some solace had the Magpies managed to beat Cardiff City in the season's second game, but a missed penalty confined them to just a point. In truth, United were second-best in that encounter, against a side widely tipped to go straight back down.
Clubs similar to Newcastle United have developed and Benitez, under the parsimonious direction of Mike Ashley, has been unable to improve his squad.
Mohamed Diame spoke following the Arsenal defeat about how Newcastle are ''playing the same way as last season.'' It was a retaliation to detractors concerning his team's austere approach against the big six. Yet, it crystallises the peril United face. It is no longer good enough to play the 'same way as last season', not when the division is in such a constant state of flux, fuelled by massive cash injections.
A toxic atmosphere has been brewing on Tyneside for a while. Ashley’s stubborn refusal to invest necessary funds into the transfer budget continues to poison his relationship with Benitez, further alienating a fan-base which deserve much more than the current state of inertia.
An away trip to Crystal Palace on Saturday begins what is a crucial period for Benitez's men. After that, they face Brighton & Hove Albion, Manchester United, Leicester City, Southampton, Watford, Burnley, Bournemouth and West Ham. The Red Devils aside, these games are all winnable.
The flip-side of Newcastle’s exhausting opening fixture list has always been they had more generous matches to follow.
Yet given the Magpies' disappointing start, they may sag under the mounting pressure. The opposition is perhaps weaker, but it will prove difficult to lift performance after four defeats from five.
The next three to four weeks will define Newcastle's season. Emerge with a healthy points tally, the threat of relegation recedes. However, continue on the current trajectory and they will be left gasping for air.