NEWCASTLE: Goals, entertainment, refreshingly free, attacking football all returned to Tyneside — but yet again, three points were out of Newcastle United’s grasp.
And how they needed them, with their winless run at the start of the Premier League season now extending to 12 games.
The 3-3 draw with Brentford, without a win in four of their own top-flight encounters, leaves United now bottom of the pile in the division, with relegation battle rivals Norwich City, Burnley, Aston Villa and Watford all picking up points on what turned out to be another afternoon of disappointment at St. James’ Park.
Jamaal Lascelles’ opener was canceled out within 82 seconds by former Newcastle striker Ivan Toney before Rico Henry made it 2-1. Joelinton equalized before a Lascelles own goal again saw United behind. But with time running out Allan Saint-Maximin secured a point for the Magpies, who doubled down on their worst ever start in their 129-year history.
Eddie Howe, who missed his United bow in the home dugout due to a positive COVID-19 test on Friday, made three changes to the side, who battled to a 1-1 draw at Brighton before the international break with £25-million-man Joe Willock along with Fabian Schar and Joelinton earning recalls to the starting XI.
Those changes, and a fresh, high-pressing approach gained early rewards as United won the ball high up the park at will. Callum Wilson went close after just three minutes but his header from a Joelinton cross from the right skidded just wide.
It took just 10 for them to get the net bulging.
A Matt Ritchie corner was curled into the box and skipper Lascelles rose highest to nod home for 1-0.
The goal sent the 52,000 sell-out crowd wild, so too Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia chief Yasir Al-Rumayyan — Newcastle’s non-executive chairman — in attendance for only the second time since last month’s takeover.
As progressive as United’s early forward play was, the same old problems began to rear their head with individual errors and defensive fragility apparent.
And as has become expected at Newcastle this season, things began to unravel in the defensive third, a minute or so after the opening goal.
Some backline pinball broke kindly for Toney, who took the ball in his stride and hit low at Karl Darlow, but instead of palming clear, the United keeper allowed the ball to slip through his grasp and into the bottom corner.
Clearly rattled, and with the visitors’ tails up, they soon edged in front.
This time yet more statuesque defensive work allowed the Bees to breeze into the lead as Matt Ritchie failed to stop the cross from the left and Jacob Murphy did not pick up Henry on the left as he slid home for 2-1.
The paradoxical nature of United’s performance was in many ways refreshing but frustrating: Attack much more fluent and threatening, but so lacking in conviction at the other end.
Luckily for United, attack became their dominant force as the half flowed to a close.
Saint-Maximin’s cut in from the left and blocked shot deflected kindly for Joelinton in the area and the frontman capped a positive performance, to that point, with an emphatic left-footed finish low into the bottom corner.
The second-half again saw United begin on the front foot, but this time without really creating the openings.
On the hour Jonjo Shelvey, picked out for praise pre-game by Howe, despite his hot and cold performances in black and white, found Joe Willock who tee’d up Saint-Maximin, whose shot was inches away from the bottom corner and outstretched No.9 Wilson.
With one team on the offensive and the other attempting to contain, surely there was only one winner, right? Wrong.
Against the run of play Thomas Frank’s men, backs to the wall for the opening 15 after the break, fortuitously edged in front again. A Frank Onyeku shot, which was headed wide, came off the shin of Lascelles and squirmed past the helpless Darlow into United’s goal.
Attempting to respark his team into life, Howe, orchestrating from his hotel room on the Gateshead Quayside, threw on Sean Longstaff and Ryan Fraser for the final 20 minutes, and changed from a 3-4-3 to 4-2-3-1 with Joelinton now playing off Wilson.
And it was Fraser, one of his trusted lieutenants from his days at Bournemouth, who did the business.
A beautifully curled delivery from the right by the Scotland international found its way to Saint-Maximin at the back post, who slammed home for 3-3 before jumping into the famous Gallowgate End to celebrate with fans.
On 83 minutes United’s chance to win came and went as a lung-busting, darting, diverting run from Saint-Maximin ended with him putting an opportunity on a plate for Joelinton. However, instead of smashing home with his right, the forward chose to cut back on to his left only to somehow lose his footing and the chance went begging.
It is either feast or famine when it comes to Joelinton and his performance in many ways mirrored that of United’s, who looked sharp up top but blunt as they come at the back.
That is now 27 goals conceded in their first 12 games this season — and if they continue to defend like that, needing to net three goals to win a match, then the journey to the Championship, England’s second tier, may even prove too much for the skills of Howe and the millions of PIF.