Newcastle United and the thriller of the lacking first-half targets: 16 video games and counting with out conceding

The time is 2.38pm on August 28, 2022. Wolves midfielder Ruben Neves gets the ball 30 yards from the Newcastle goal and drives it past Nick Pope.

That is the last time Newcastle conceded a first-half goal. They have played 16 games in the Premier League since then. If you include cup matches, that number extends to 21.

Many things have happened since.

There has been a World Cup.

Liz Truss became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Liz Truss resigned as Primer Minister of the United Kingdom.

Queen Elizabeth II died.

Throughout all of that, Newcastle have not conceded in the first half of matches despite playing fellow top-six sides Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham.


To be clear, this is not a piece about why Newcastle’s defence is so good.

There have been plenty of explorations of that, from Kieran Trippier, Fabian Schar, Sven Botman and Dan Burn’s individual roles to the intricacies of Newcastle’s pressing and defensive rotations.

This is more niche. Only 18 per cent of goals scored against Newcastle this season have been in the first half. Their closest challengers are Arsenal on 31 per cent and Manchester City on 40 per cent.

The Athletic felt compelled to unravel the mystery.

This was difficult. But my editor was resolute. I tried arguing that if there was an evident reason then rival Premier League managers would have worked it out. No luck. So here we are…

I started with the raw statistics. Of the 11 goals Newcastle have conceded in the league this season, there have been two in the first half — against Manchester City and Wolves — and nine in the second half.

Newcastle have not conceded at all in the league since November 6, when Romain Perraud scored a late consolation for Southampton.

Ten of these goals have been scored from inside the area, with Neves’ strike the only exception. Six have come from the scorer’s right foot, three from the left and two from their head.

By way of comparison, Newcastle’s run of 16 games without conceding in the first half is the third-longest in Premier League history, level with Liverpool in 2001-02 but behind Aston Villa in 1995-96 (18 games) and Arsenal in 1998-99 (20 games).

To break Arsenal’s record, Newcastle will have to keep a first-half clean sheet away at Manchester City in March. Those are the facts. But it does not begin to explain why.

Where to start?

Primarily as a reminder of what it is like to watch Newcastle concede, I watched all 11 goals again to see if there was any correlation. If they are vulnerable at all, it tends to be from the 54th to the 64th minute — just before Eddie Howe makes his first substitutions — when six of the 11 have been conceded.

Goals conceded by NUFC in 2022-23

Date Player Team Error? Set-piece? Right/Left/Head Inside/Outside 0-15 16-30 31-45 46-60 61-75 76-90


Ilkay Gundogan

Manchester City






Erling Haaland

Manchester City





Bernardo Silva

Manchester City






Ruben Neves






Roberto Firmino






Fabio Carvalho






Philip Billing






Bobby De Cordova-Reid







Ivan Toney



Inside (P)



Harry Kane







Romain Perraud





While this might be something to dig into, it provides much more potential information about the second half than the first half.

The next step — though not necessarily the right step — was to work out whether there was any major statistical difference between Newcastle’s first-half and second-half defending. If there was, it would be possible to go back through previous matches, spot it in action, and solve the mystery.

That was until well and good, except for one significant caveat: it is not as if Howe’s side are bad at defending in the second half. Their nine goals conceded in the second period is also the lowest in the league.

Newcastle defence by half

Goals conceded Duel success Errors leading to shots Tackle success











What does this show? Newcastle win slightly more duels in the first half, but not significantly so. They also made fewer errors leading to shots and had a higher tackle-success ratio in the second half.

In need of a greater footballing brain, I turned to one of The Athletic’s tactics writers Ahmed Walid, who has written extensively about Newcastle’s defence this season.

“The defensive organisation is brilliant and the pressing is just unreal,” he told me. “Also, a big part of the defence being better is that Newcastle control the game better. They don’t lose the ball easily.

“It’s all these small improvements in terms of their possession game, pressing, counter-pressing and defensive organisation which makes them so hard to play against.”

Armed with this information, I looked up some different numbers.

Newcastle possession/pressing by half

Goals conceded

Possession lost

Possession won final 1/3









Frustratingly, there was still no clear disparity between the first and second half. Newcastle actually lose possession less and win it back through pressing more in the second period. Passes per defensive action (PPDA), which measures the intensity of pressing, was not a suitable metric due to its reliance on game state.

Perhaps quantitative data was not the answer.

Former Arsenal defender Nigel Winterburn was part of that Arsenal team who went on a longer run than Newcastle’s. What did he think? Was there a psychological aspect?

“To be quite honest with you, I can’t remember it,” began Winterburn. Not a great start.

After clearing up the exact run in question — the second half of the 1998-99 season, when Arsenal missed out on the title to Manchester United by a single point — we began to get somewhere.

“The game seems tighter in the first half,” he explained. “But you’ve got to have that organisational confidence. It doesn’t surprise me that Newcastle have that. If you take the Arsenal game, with the strength they have in wide areas, the complexity of their defensive system…”

Was there pressure when defending a record like this?

“When I played, I couldn’t tell you about these statistics,” Winterburn replied. “Our job was just not to concede a goal — and we thrived on that. It’s no good having a clean sheet at half-time and then conceding two or three in the second half. And Newcastle aren’t doing that.”

Mark Bosnich was part of the Villa side who went on their run in 1995-96. Like Winterburn, it was the first he’d heard of the record, but he immediately noticed similarities between Newcastle now and Villa then.

“We were nearly relegated the season before,” he remembers. “And then we finished fourth, just as Newcastle are on course to do, and we won the League Cup, of which Newcastle are on the verge of the final. Both Eddie Howe and Brian Little were also young English managers.”

But Bosnich believes the difference might be fairly obvious.

“In the second half, players start to get a bit more tired, and you might see more mistakes,” he said. “There are also games where if you are comfortably winning, you might switch off and concede a consolation.”

Newcastle’s away wins against Fulham and Southampton, which both ended 4-1, are examples.

“There was definitely never a message of keeping it tight in the first half,” Bosnich adds. “But another thing might be that strikers say, ‘Especially in the first half, I’m just going to run my defender. I might not get a chance, but in the second half, I will, because they’ll be tiring’.”

Based on Bosnich’s tip, analysing expected goals (xG) seemed sensible. Are Newcastle simply giving up more good chances in the second half?

The answer was yes — but not by much. In the first half, they had been expected to concede 7.36 goals; in the second half, 10.63.

It was not enough to explain the startling disparity in goals conceded — but it provided one valuable insight.

It demonstrated that Newcastle’s opponents take advantage of their opportunities far less in the first half than in the second: Newcastle conceded only two goals in the first period, which is an overperformance of 5.36, while they conceded nine after half-time, which is an overperformance of 1.63.

This can be explored. One reason for a disparity between xG conceded and goals conceded could be outstanding goalkeeping. And, well, Pope has had an outstanding season.

Pope (top image) has kept more clean sheets than any other goalkeeper in Europe’s top five leagues in all competitions — with statistics showing this achievement is not solely down to his defence.

Pope ranks 16th in the top five leagues for post-shot expected goals minus goals allowed (xGOT) — the number of goals he would be expected to concede given the quality of the effort minus goals actually conceded.

His total (+3.3) is good enough for fourth in the Premier League, behind Alisson, Kepa Arrizabalaga, and Bernd Leno.

If he plays better in the first half than the second half — mystery solved.

Nick Pope xGOT by half

xGOT faced Goals conceded Difference









But that hypothesis is not borne out by the data. Via Opta, based on the quality of shots faced by Pope, an average goalkeeper would be expected to concede 3.29 goals in the first half and 11.30 in the second half — meaning Pope actually performs better after half time, despite conceding more goals.

However, this does hint at a potential answer to the central question.

By looking at the difference between first-half xG conceded (7.36) and xGOT conceded (3.29) it is clear that opposing players are producing less dangerous shots on goal than would be expected, given the location of the shot. In the first half, opponents are not finishing well.

This has been evident in recent months. Against Crystal Palace last weekend, Chris Richards had an unmarked header from a corner right before half-time. It went over the bar.

Arsenal defender Gabriel had a similar opportunity from a free kick on January 3.

In Newcastle’s 3-0 win at Leicester City on Boxing Day, Patson Daka skied his side’s best chance of the first half.

Armando Broja did brilliantly to turn Sven Botman against Chelsea on November 12 but, with the goal at his mercy, he dribbled a shot at Pope.

Aston Villa’s Ollie Watkins provided possibly the most obvious example on October 29. Matty Cash’s excellent cross picked him out in plenty of space. Watkins elected to volley it. The result: an air kick.

Undoubtedly, a hefty share of luck is behind Newcastle’s first-half excellence.

Opposing strikers cannot be expected to finish like this all season. But 16 games is a hefty sample size — and there is a final factor.

Going back through Newcastle’s first-half performances, the number of big chances stopped by blocks is striking.

Against Fulham on January 15, Aleksandr Mitrovic’s snapshot from 12 yards out was well blocked by a combination of Burn and Schar.

Miguel Almiron did well to stop the onrushing Ben White — and avoid giving away a penalty — against Arsenal on January 3.

Leeds United’s Brenden Aaronson looked to have wrongfooted Pope on New Year’s Eve, only for Burn’s trailing leg to keep it goalless.

And perhaps, most impressively, Emi Buendia looked bound to score for Villa in that October match, only for Burn (again) to put his body on the line to snuff out the danger.

Newcastle have blocked 41 of 87 shots on goal in the first half this season — that’s 47.1 per cent.

In the second half that falls to only 39 shots blocked from 124 shots on goal — 31.5 per cent.

Newcastle’s first-half block percentage would see them third in the league, behind only Manchester City and Arsenal, the other two best defences in the division.

Premier League by shots blocked %

Count only the second half, however, and they fall to eighth.

So why are Newcastle not conceding first-half goals?

Because their defence is exceptionally good.

Because when opposition forwards get a first-half chance, they finish very badly.

Because Newcastle are far more proficient at blocking shots at the start of matches.

They just have to hope it stays that way for another five games.

All stats via Opta. 

(Top photo: George Wood via Getty Images)

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