Mark Douglas, the Newcastle United editor at The Chronicle, gives us the lowdown on the Toon Army...
Newcastle began the season with three wins from their first five but it's now only one win in the last seven. Has there been a noticeable downward shift in momentum?
“They've dropped away little bit in the last few weeks, but they had made a pretty solid start before that. Before the Burnley game [which they lost 1-0] they could have gone sixth if they won. They've lost three successive games since then and some of the momentum has gone, no doubt. The last one at Man United (where they lost 4-1) ran away from them a bit but the other two defeats were by the odd goal. Overall it's been a mixed start and they could certainly do with a win this weekend.”
Perched in 11th having just been promoted is a pretty good place to be sitting after 12 games, though...
“They've not been out of any game they’ve been in, although performances have been pretty much up and down. They got narrow wins against Swansea, Palace and Stoke in single-goal games that could have gone either way. Likewise with the three defeats against Brighton, Bournemouth, Huddersfield and Burnley – they could have gone the other way. They are competitive which is all you can ask of a newly-promoted team. They've still got a bit of work to do, though.”
You've conceded fewer goals than Arsenal, which suggests you must be doing something right, but, at the other end, you've scored the same number as West Ham...
“Defensively they have been very sound but scoring goals has been the problem – they've only scored 11. We thought that might happen when we looked at the summer transfer business. They work very hard, are organised and have more of an idea than the last time they were in the Premier League. The signs have been largely encouraging.”
How has the traditionally cautious Rafael Benitez got the team set up?
“It's not been quite your traditional 4-4-2 but it's as close as. He has been playing two strikers in the last two games, in Dwight Gayle and Joselu, which is a bit of a surprise as he didn't do that at all in the Championship.
“I think Benitez is now just reacting to the fact that they haven't scored enough goals. It's very different to the 4-5-1 he was playing, where Perez or Mo Diame played as a number ten.”
Does it say a lot that Jamaal Lascelles, a centre-half, is the joint leading scorer with two goals?
“It does. They made enquiries to get Tammy Abraham but he went to Swansea and they tried to get Lucas Perez but he left Arsenal and went back to Deportivo La Coruna. The failure to get a top striker was what was causing a bit of tension with Benitez.
They only managed in the end to get Joselu from Stoke for £5m, and he was third or fourth choice at Stoke. He's done ok but he's doesn't look like he's going to score many goals. He works incredibly hard and is strong but the team is definitely lacking a real goal threat.”
The word is Lascelles is out injured. Is there any other injury news?
“Lascelles has been really good so it's a shame he'll be injured for Saturday. He got injured in the defeat to Bournemouth and has been a big miss since. Ciaran Clarke and Florian Lejeune will play at the back. There is a chance Mikel Morino might be back and that will be a big boost as he's done really well in the centre of midfield.
“Isaac Hayden is suspended while there is a chance Paul Dummett might make it. He's been out since the start of the season with a hamstring injury. He's really the only recognised left-back in the squad. Christian Atsu is the other player out. He's got a groin problem.”
Is Benitez a happier bunny now? There were reports at the start of the season that he was a bit disillusioned and might even walk.
“I think he's learnt to pick his battles and know when to fight and went not to. He's not really mentioned the transfer business, or lack of it, since the window closed, although he did talk on Saturday about how much deeper Man United's resources were than his.
“He seems really happy here, he loves the club and the fans love him. It's a good combination. The takeover talk has created a bit of uncertainty as everyone is talking about it up here.”
Daryl Janmaat is with Watford now and makes his first return to St James' Park since he left to join us. What sort of reaction will he get on Saturday?
“He was very popular at the start and did really well in his two seasons. He was rated highly. But I think the reaction he'll get will be mixed. Although that might seem slightly unfair, there is a bit of ill-feeling towards the players who couldn’t wait to get out after relegation, that they didn't do an awful lot to try and keep the team up. There is a bit of resentment there, just like there is towards Wijnaldum and Sissoko. I guess that's always the way when good players leave.”
We got to know each other quite well the season before last, playing each other three times. What have you made of our progress since?
“It looks like you've got a good manager in Marco Silva, that's for sure. We were talking up here the other day how Newcastle were way ahead of the likes of Watford six or seven years ago but now you've overtaken us. You are an established Premier League club and are in your third season of TV money. You've really kicked on and signed some very good players. Newcastle are now looking to play catch-up. There is a lot of respect for what Watford have done.”
And, finally, how do you see the game going?
“Newcastle have to get something from this game and the game against West Brom on Tuesday to stay out of the relegation mix. They will be viewing the Watford game as very winnable winnable, especially with some tough away games coming up.”