‘No wonder he isn’t playing well when so-called fans like you slag him off every week!’
It would not be Newcastle United, or indeed life, if people were not divided about something. After COVID-19 turned the game of two halves into a season of two halves and the endless takeover saga spanned across both, and beyond, fans of our club remain in two opposing camps. No, I am not talking about pro-takeover and anti-takeover - it is time for the pro-Joelinton and anti-Joelinton debate to feature on NE1's Game.
It should not need clarifying, but apparently it does, that no Newcastle fan ever wanted, or currently wants, Joelinton to fail. I mean, why the hell would they? Even those who have been the loudest of critics would love to be proven wrong and watch him score 10-15 goals this season. However, bizarrely, his failure to convince anyone (other than whoever sanctioned his purchase) that he has the ability to be a successful Premier League footballer has been blamed, by some, on those who have dared to suggest that maybe he just isn’t very good.
Being a supporter does not revoke your right to criticise the players on your team and doing so makes you no less of a fan. Unquestioning positivity and support is what cheerleaders are for, not hardened supporters. Our recent role as virtual fans accentuates this point as the players are unable to hear us anyway, whether we are supporting or criticising. Once again it should not need clarifying, but in the world of social media everything does, that there is a difference between criticising and abusing and anyone who follows me on Twitter knows where I stand on that.
I very much doubt that a pre-match Tweet from a fan with 200 followers, despairing at him being named as the striker, was the reason for him having one touch in the Blackburn box. Yet, once again, post-match Newcastle United Twitter was divided into those who have seen more than enough of Joelinton Cássio Apolinário de Lira and those who want him to play in black and white forever, in every position, because anything less is giving up on him and being a shit fan. Fans are allowed to express their opinions, even if they're negative, about our players and, unless you're tagging them relentlessly, they will never see it and it therefore has no impact on their confidence or performance.
As none of us are attending the match these days and few of us are gathering in pubs on a Saturday, social media has become our Leazes End or our ‘berry. This makes our lives as football supporters vastly different to what we are used to. We have all sat near that one lad who moans and groans all game, regardless of performance and we have all snapped after fifteen games (or fifteen minutes, depending on your patience) of hearing it and told him to shut the fuck up and support the players. We have, haven’t we? This is different as this is live football, where crowd noise and reaction absolutely does impact on confidence and performance.
Conversely, and on a more positive note, we have all tried to do our part for a poor performance or a struggling player by rising from our seats, turning to face those around us and encouraging more noise. We have all played our part in being the twelfth man, squeezing that extra yard out of players whose energy tank, or confidence, appeared empty.
Without being at football matches, are we playing out our Saturday afternoon roles via our social media accounts from the comfort of our own homes? Are the eternal defenders of Joelinton the same people who sing, clap and encourage all game while those criticising him are the ones who sit and moan and groan? I do wonder but that is a discussion for another day.
In assessing our Brazilian import, I decided to break down a few different areas surrounding the Joelinton debate and offer my thoughts, for what they’re worth, on each one.
You can not read any thread about Joelinton without seeing the £40m fee used as part of the argument. ‘He’s not a £40m player!’ is the most polite one I could find and it begs the question, what or who is a £40m player? What would a player need to do to receive universal acceptance of his worth as a £40m investment?
It also raises the point about transfer fees setting expectations of players from the fan base and it actually works both ways. The free transfer signings of Mark Gillespie and Jeff Hendrick both received social media comments using the ‘free’ part of their signings as an instant negative. ‘He can’t be that good if he’s on a free!’
It seems, whether it be a record fee or zero fee, that the money spent on players has an influence when assessing a player. This is not a fair assessment, of course, as players are not responsible for how much clubs decide to spend on them. It is the club who put the £40m target on Joelinton’s back and therefore only the club should be beaten with that particular stick.
The iconic Newcastle United number 9 shirt is the heaviest item of clothing known to man, making a Knight’s chainmail armour seem like a cotton t-shirt. The weight of the number, and all that goes with it, acts as a modern day fairytale that only those who are worthy may possess it and all others will be crushed by its curse.
I’ve always found this a bit of a strange one, to be honest, as other than fans of the club does anyone really view a shirt number with an eternal reverence and awe? I wonder whether the lad from Aliança ever considered those before him and became overwhelmed at the prospect of following Salomón Rondón, Dwight Gayle, Papiss Cissé, Andy Carroll and Obafemi Martins in the list of number 9s to follow Alan Shearer.
The false rumours, that became accepted fact by the end of the day yet were proven nonsense the following day, that Callum Wilson was to take the number nine shirt provoked an interesting social media reaction. Once again, it was divided. The first group viewed this as a further knock to Joelinton's confidence, the club seemingly deeming him unworthy after one season rather than standing by him, and suggested this would further hamper his development. The second group suggested that removing this heavy burden from his back would actually free him and allow him to quietly flourish away from the spotlight of the blinding number. There was another group that rejoiced over the hallowed digit no longer being tainted by such a player.
'He is not a centre forward! He has never played there in his life! He was a winger at Hoffenheim!'
Like many urban legends, the origin is unknown but once repeated often enough some believe it as fact. I do not know every Newcastle United fan but I doubt that many of those proclaiming this knowledge of his proper position watched all 28 of his Bundesliga games in 2018/19 before making this assertion. So where does it come from?
Tifo’s analysis of the player is available on YouTube (link below) and in it they state that, ‘At Hoffenheim, Joelinton was predominantly used as part of a two-man strike partnership. He did also play as an attacking midfielder in a midfield diamond formation or as a wide player in a 4-3-3 but these were less usual.’
Using transfermarkt.co.uk, I filtered his entire career appearances to different positions. According to their stats, Joelinton has played:
Centre forward: 125 appearances, 30 goals, 19 assists
Second-striker: 14 appearances, 5 goals, 1 assist
Left wing: 7 appearances, 0 goals, 0 assists
Right wing: 5 appearances, 0 goals, 2 assists
Attacking midfield: 1 appearance, 0 goals, 0 assists
The 2016/17 Bundesliga season was his most productive. During this season, he made 33 appearances, scored 8 goals and made 5 assists. In the 27 games he started, 23 of them were as a centre forward.
So, to summarise, yes he is a centre forward. Yes, he has played there in his life. No, he was not a winger at Hoffenheim. Keep your urban legends for Halloween.
I can see the argument about moving leagues, I really can, and the Premier League can be a more physical and competitive league from top to bottom than some others. There is then the personal, human aspect of moving to another country, being young and not speaking a language. Those human elements are harder to assess without asking the man himself so I am deliberately sticking with the football side of the move to a new league. The Premier League can be tough, of course, so what about the games he has played against lower league sides and how does he compare?
So far in England, he has played 469 minutes against lower league opposition, in which he scored 2 and assisted 2. This is the same productivity as his 2712 minutes in the Premier League.
Here's the interesting part to that comparison - he played as the lone centre forward in every one of those games against lower league opposition.
Of course, Newcastle also had more of the ball in those lower league games but the fundamentals of being in the key positions necessary to provide a goal threat, missing from his Premier League performances, were there. This raises the question of whether it is the position on the field or the standard of opposition that causes the problem for him.
Newcastle’s style of play
In 2019/20, Newcastle placed 19th in progressive distance passing. This is a measurement of the total distance that passes have travelled towards the opponent’s goal. We also placed 20th in completed passes that entered the final third of the pitch and 20th in completed passes into the penalty area. (source: fbref.com)
The facts are there in black and white that the Newcastle United of 2019/20 was not exactly a forward player's dream. However, the same was true for every player and he was still outscored by Shelvey, Almirón, Gayle and Saint-Maximin and tied with Matty Longstaff, Matt Ritchie and five defenders. This, despite featuring in every Premier League game and all six FA Cup games.
I read a Tweet from Mark Douglas suggesting that his performance against Blackburn (one touch in the opposition box) illustrated that he just can’t do the sort of things Callum Wilson can. While I absolutely agree with Mark, I suggested that the bigger problem is that he also can not do the sort of things that Andy Carroll, Dwight Gayle, Ryan Fraser, Miguel Almirón, Allan Saint-Maximin and Matt Ritchie can. It isn't just that he isn't a goal scoring box player - in its current setup and with his current ability, there is no role for Joelinton in this team.
I can’t help but wonder what it would take for the ‘I’m not giving up on him!’ section of our fan base to admit that Newcastle have bought a dud. Their undying belief that there is ‘obviously a good player in there’, without any tangible evidence to back that up, is admirable. They continue with their attempt to convince the doubters that he just needs to play in a system that works; in a position that works; with better players around him; without the fans getting on his back; against lower league opposition; when it’s 23 degrees outside; when it’s a full moon…come on, man. Give it up.
Perhaps there is an element of the protection and positivity becoming louder as the criticism does. Once you have chosen your viewpoint, you either change it as more evidence becomes available or you vociferously defend it despite any objective measure showing that you may have been wrong. It is a phenomenon stretching far beyond Newcastle United players and fans.
Or perhaps Joelinton represents something bigger within the fan base and has become the personification of the 'boycott or stay' divide. Those who have had enough versus those who will attend every game, home and away, regardless. Those who demand more from the club's ambition versus those who see the positivity in what we have.
Regardless, the fee is not his fault and being given the number 9 shirt is not his fault so they are not arguments I generally engage with when discussing players. However, I have now seen enough of him to be able to assess whether he is a player that I like and the answer is no. You can talk systems and tactics all day but the fundamentals come through regardless of whether you are used to a strike partner or not and I have yet to see a consistent ability to control the ball, pass the ball, retain possession, beat an opponent with skill or pace, create an opportunity, get in the box or test the goalkeeper with a shot. If you can’t do any of that, then what use are you in the attacking half of a Premier League football pitch?
What we do with him is a different question but, for me, the answer is not to persevere with playing him. I know he is only 24 years old and that he still has time on his side but Newcastle United is not a football club that can offer that time. We need players who can perform now and can't afford to wait on the possibility that he will come good next season or the one after that. There is absolutely no chance of getting our £40m back and I would be surprised if we managed to get half of that but the longer he sits on our bench or has games like Tuesday night, the lower that resale value becomes. An alternative is to find a European team to take him on loan, cover his wages, arrange a future option to buy and hope that he performs.
Regardless, this will surely go down as the strangest Newcastle United signing in our history. A player the previous manager did not want and the current manager had no role in signing. A player nobody seems to be able to fit into a tactic or system that works. A player bought to add goals to an impotent team, who does not actually score goals.
Welcome to Newcastle United.