At St James’ Park on Sunday afternoon, Newcastle United conceded late to throw away two points, struggled with set-pieces and looked shaky at the back, yet this was a huge improvement on last season.
There were new faces, on and off the pitch, a new style of play and new optimism. The ball was passed on the ground, full-backs overlapped and Steve McClaren’s expensive recruits impressed.
Netting on his debut, Gini Wijnaldum was of course the star. Brought in from PSV Eindhoven, the 24-year-old took no time at all to settle into the hustle and bustle of the Premier League, shaking off challenges and ghosting past markers.
His most telling contribution was a counter-attacking goal that few will match this term, as Gabriel Obertan was sent haring away down the right and swung over a sensational centre for Wijnaldum to rise and nod into the corner.
This was Keith Gillespie to Tino Asprilla against Barcelona in its simplicity and its beauty, though the Dutchman’s late bursts quickly drew comparisons to former United captain Rob Lee – on Tyneside, that’s quite some compliment.
Chancel Mbemba, having arrived at the stadium in a tuxedo, was also imposing on his bow. Southampton’s first came from the Congolese international’s slack marking, while he and skipper Fabricio Coloccini occasionally failed to step up in tandem, but this was a good start. He repeatedly used his athletic attributes to ease out opponents and instantly brought a calm in possession never seen with predecessor Mike Williamson.
The signing that has sparked the most conversation though, both in Newcastle and further afield, is that of Aleksandar Mitrovic. Like his fellow newcomers, the Serb certainly made an impact – albeit on the shins of young Matt Targett.
Punished with a yellow card, though this challenge just seconds into his English career brought groans from some, not since Andy Carroll – and before him, Alan Shearer – have the Magpies had a centre forward with the physical presence to frighten defenders. After his booking there were elbows and tussles, but also examples of fine hold-up play.
By this point, Mitrovic was isolated – a sign surely of United’s waning energy levels – but the side were hampered in part by the withdrawal of Vurnon Anita through injury.
With Massadio Haidara reformed in the second half and Moussa Sissoko offering one of his better showings in black and white, McClaren’s team selection proved inspired. That he had stars such as Rolando Aarons, Siem de Jong, Ayoze Perez and Mitrovic to call upon in reserve suggests that this squad is finally getting somewhere.
The final result was disappointing but fair, and at least illustrates the need for further work.
While the foundations are in place, Newcastle’s next home clash with Arsenal is preceded by trips to Swansea City and Manchester United. If Wijnaldum and Co return with points from those two ventures, an early outpouring of excitement might be justified.