NEWCASTLE: It has come to something when Newcastle United, the team that could not buy a win in late 2021, are claiming three points despite not playing well.
However, that is exactly what they did at St. James’ Park as they saw off top half Brighton & Hove Albion to make it eight games unbeaten in the top flight, their longest unbeaten run since late 2011.
Most importantly, though, these three points, coupled with defeat for Burnley against Chelsea, stretched their gap to the bottom three to seven points, meaning a brighter future, a Premier League future, feels within touching distance.
The Magpies’ win was sealed in the opening 45 as man-of-the-moment Ryan Fraser netted only his third goal in black and white from close range early doors.
Fraser then turned provider as Fabian Schar nodded in a free kick to send St. James’ Park into raptures.
Brighton did respond in the second half as Lewis Dunk beat Martin Dubravka to the jump to half the deficit, but the visitors could not muster a deserved second despite plenty of late huff and puff.
Winning ugly is not something Newcastle fans are all that accustomed to, but they will take it all the same.
Despite the return of Allan Saint-Maximin to the squad registering early headlines, the Frenchman could only win a place on the bench with Eddie Howe going unchanged for the third Premier League game in succession.
While Graham Potter’s side were easily the more fluent and easy on the eye, Newcastle proved the more clinical in the first half.
Newcastle’s midfield, so impressive in controlling proceedings against West Ham and Brentford, did not have things all their own way against the Seagulls, who moved the ball from left to right, with overlapping fullbacks, at will.
However, that approach did leave gaps at the back, and United were in no mood to let that go unexploited.
Fraser, nominated for the Premier League player of the month, was a constant thorn in the opposition side, and it was he whose lung-busting run was rewarded with his second goal of the season.
With Brighton hemming Newcastle into their own half and easily looking the more likely to score, a smart turn and pass by Chris Wood, in what was his most impressive performance since arriving, unleashed pacey Jacob Murphy through the middle.
Showing the Brighton backline a clean set of heels, the wideman only had the keeper to beat, and while his chipped finish rebounded back off the post, Fraser, who had burst forward in support, was rewarded with the easiest of finishes as he finessed past a number of sprawling Brighton bodies on the line.
If the first felt like it was a blow against the run of play, the second was even more of a shock.
Within minutes the Magpies won a free kick on the right, and swinging in the center was Fraser for Schar, whose striker-like dart away from a defender saw him meet the cross powerfully, beating Robert Sanchez at his front post.
To that point, it was hard to argue that Newcastle deserved the lead, but given their season’s plight, they are far from undeserving of a slice of luck and goodwill.
On the half hour the visitors, smarting from their defensive capitulation, looked to bite back. A poor ball from Joelinton, a rare slip, allowed Brighton to break, and having been played in, Danny Welbeck’s effort was met with the strong frame of Martin Dubravka, who diverted over the bar.
Two goals down, Brighton continued to play their football, but the chances, in the main, fell the way of Newcastle.
On the eve of the break, a slip by goal-scorer Dunk allowed Murphy the chance to net a third, but his left-footed effort was weak and easy for Sanchez to claim.
After the break, little changed in terms of the flow of this one, with Newcastle pinned back and Brighton the aggressor.
Their lifeline came at 55 minutes when Dunk rose above Dubravka to head in for 2-1. Cue a St. James’ Park siege as wave after wave of Brighton forays forward were repelled by Emil Krafth and the increasingly impressive Dan Burn.
Looking to relieve the pressure, Howe turned to Saint-Maximin and record-signing Bruno Guimaraes off the bench. It did little to stem the flow of Brighton attacks.
Leandro Trossard, so often a game-changer against the Magpies, forced Dubravka into a low stop as time ticked away.
But with the home crowd roaring them on, Newcastle held strong to climb to 28 points from 26 games this season, the first time they have been ahead of the curve when it comes to points per game this campaign.
And long may it continue. This was a performance for the purists. It lacked the swagger of the West Ham draw, the cutting edge of Everton or Aston Villa, even the control of Brentford last week. But there was one thing it did not lack: Heart.
Under Howe, there is a lot to like about this United side, who look like a team transformed from the one that limped into 2022 with a defeat against League One Cambridge United.
They are not the finished article, of that there is no doubt, but what team ever is? Well, bar Manchester City maybe, or prime Pep Guardiola Barcelona.
This team, and Howe, are learning on the job, and having mastered the art of winning in the Premier League, the only way feels up for United, on and off the park.