Fears of catching coronavirus have prompted Newcastle to ban their players from shaking hands with each other but arguably the biggest danger facing them is the lack of on-field connectivity which has heightened the risk of relegation on Tyneside.
If he is playing it safe off the pitch, Steve Bruce knew the time to gamble on it had arrived. Accordingly for the first time since September Newcastle’s manager deprived his players of the security blanket represented by Rafa-ball – namely the 3-4-3 system installed by his predecessor, Rafael Benítez – and reconfigured them into a new-look 4-2-3-1 system.
This re-vamp facilitated Dwight Gayle’s return as the main striker, Joelinton’s relocation to a wide left role and Miguel Almirón’s return to his preferred No 10 role. Almirón did more than anyone to discomfit Burnley as an increasingly agitated Sean Dyche’s strutting body language became more domineering alpha male by the minute.
Whatever their formation Newcastle struggle to polish off the chances and, mainly, half-chances, created by Almirón and company and Burnley’s goalkeeper Nick Pope – presumably being scrutinised, along with the home side’s Danny Rose, by the watching Gareth Southgate – had limited scope for showing off his reflexes.
Bruce looked set to celebrate as Gayle connected with Javier Manquillo’s deep cross but Gayle’s shot was deflected for a corner and Burnley were able to reassert themselves. This frequently involved keeping things scrappy in midfield where Burnley worked extremely hard to restrict the recalled Jonjo Shelvey’s playmaking potential and Newcastle’s Isaac Hayden did not enjoy his best game.
With James Tarkowski impressing at the heart of the visiting defence and his team’s threat stemming mainly from set-pieces, there was little to distract spectators from the Siberian wind-chill factor. Perhaps everyone was simply numbed by the cold but the atmosphere was unusually flat and, at times, almost eerily quiet.
Disillusion – with the owner, Mike Ashley, and Bruce’s perceived shortcomings – almost certainly also had something to do with a strange torpor which, at least until Chris Wood stepped off the bench, seemed in danger of infecting certain players.
Dyche’s decision to replace the well shackled Matej Vydra with Wood served to wake everyone up. Until the New Zealand striker’s arrival, Jamaal Lascelles and Federico Fernández had made the much agonised-over switch to a flat back-four look pretty seamless but Wood’s movement and sheer physical presence provoked the first signs of self-doubt in the home backline.
It was time for Bruce to liberate Allan Saint-Maximin from the bench. Time to see if the much-adored French winger could make an even bigger difference than Wood. The afternoon’s two biggest cheers greeted the sight of Saint-Maximin peeling off his tracksuit top and then running on to replace Joelinton.
Sure enough Burnley promptly took a turn on the back foot. Now Phil Bardsley, their right-back, looked a little on edge but few teams are as expert as Dyche’s as winding down the clock and killing off a match.
In extending their uneaten run to six games they duly left Newcastle destined to trudge off to a smattering of resigned boos. Bruce’s side have now gone four games without scoring a goal.