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We need to talk about Callum (and probably Chris)

Lucas · Thursday 12th January 2023
We need to talk about Callum (and probably Chris)

Can I shock you? I like Callum Wilson. I think he’s eclipsed Demba Ba as the best Newcastle forward since that sheet metal worker’s son decided to embrace the BBC studio sofalife. He is a striker’s striker: he can finish with either foot and head, is strong and holds the ball up well, has a feather-pillow first touch, self-assurance in abundance, and is a Müllerian space-invader.

Put briefly, he’s a (very handsome) pain in the arse to defend. A sporting devil with an angel’s face.

But number 9 is a horse’s hoof: hard on the outside, fragile on the inside. The snakes to ladders ratio is not in Callum’s favour (and, on closer inspection, the ladders have woodworm and are held together by chewing gum).

Leaving out seasons where he has missed five games or less, his absence record since becoming a Premier League player is alarming:

  • 2015/16 – missed 30 games (cruciate ligament rupture)
  • 2016/17 – missed 25 games (cruciate ligament rupture)
  • 2018/19 – missed 11 games (hamstring and knee injuries)
  • 2020/21 – missed 12 games (hamstring and thigh injuries)
  • 2021/22 – missed 23 games (hamstring and calf injuries)
  • 2022/23 – missed 9 games to date (hamstring injuries and Covid-19)
Callum Wilson: manly jeans; manky genes.

It’s not just the games missed; it’s the variety of cause. I’d not want to return to my school debating team to propose the motion “this house believes Callum Wilson is genetically pre-disposed to the rigours of modern commoditised football”.

On Tyneside, the problem has been exacerbated by lack of reliable back-up to date. Isak’s fitness on arrival means that the grim Ashley-era refrain “like a new signing” actually rings true right now. Joelinton was never a striker, and Andy Carroll Mk.II’s only worthwhile contribution was a decent impression of a foal on a bosu ball.

And so; Chris Wood. We at NUFCFeed are of the view that Chris Wood is not a bad striker; it’s more that he can’t cope with the intensity of our offensive game. He struggles to either get in place to score when we move quickly, or once he is there, he lacks the required sharpness to finish clinically. The impact is amplified in an elite game of very fine margins.

This season, Wood has taken nine shots; with four on target and two goals against an xG of 2.26. Wilson comes in at 30 shots, 12 on target and six goals from an xG of 7.31. Their shots on target to goals ratio is almost identical; Wood’s shots to shots on target to ratio is actually better. But statistics are only part of the equation: on a naked eye test, he doesn’t look like scoring. Nor does he look like he believes he can. His Jonny Wilkinson impression at Sheffield Wednesday was worryingly predictable.

Chris Wood: “I wish one of these Hillsborough potholes would swallow me up”

But here’s the rub. Wood is a tick under three months older than Wilson, yet the former has played 568 games to the latter’s 328. In one sense, Wilson is like Jeremy Clarkson during black history month: he just can’t be relied on. Unless he is a big fan of bacon and Sports Direct vouchers, it’s probably why he signed for the Newcastle discount circus in 2020.

This is why Al-Rumayyan hit the warp drive to sign Isak in the summer. In theory, he’s an able alternative to Wilson when (not if) he can’t play, but can also play at the same time as him (either as a wide forward or in a two-striker system). Crucially, he had never missed more than 5 games in a season before signing.

If Newcastle have serious ambitions to compete and go deep on four fronts, they need at least three forwards who can reliably score goals. As we stand, we have one who we know can, one who we think can, and one who we doubt can.

Alexander Isak: "please sir, can I have some more?"

And so, Newcastle have a problem. They need an alternate striker who is suited to their game, but it’s hard to find one good enough for where they want to be without a serious overpay or taking too big a risk. Put simply, it’s hard to sign a great striker on the premise that he’s not necessarily going to play a lot.

The best solution may well be planned rotation. Newcastle should keep Wilson: he does and will score goals. Combining him with a young striker of serious potential for Howe to develop and sharing their playing time could both allow Wilson the load management he needs and help avoid inter-squad disharmony. This is why NUFCFeed’s ears pricked up when the Moukoko links surfaced.

Crucially, Wilson might be open to the idea. He shortly turns 31 – given his health record, being a rotational player for an elite European club is arguably his best option in practice. His England ambitions might be a spanner in the works, but the cherub of Coventry would back himself to remain the main man.