NEWCASTLE: It’s all about the money, they said. Newcastle United will “buy” themselves out of trouble. Well, Eddie Howe’s Magpies are week-by-week going some way to disproving that Premier League theory.
No team in world football spent more than the Magpies in the January transfer window, as head coach Howe’s strengthening was backed by the funding of majority shareholders, the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia.
However, to point toward finance and rich owners only tells a fraction of the story of what has been happening at Newcastle United in 2022.
Here we take a look at what’s occurred behind the scenes at St. James’ Park, and at the club’s training pitches at Benton, to ensure transfer expenditure has been the cherry on top, rather than the foundations that underpin what has proved to be a miraculous turnaround in fortunes.
1. The return of belief and confidence
One win in 21 games kicked off Newcastle United’s Premier League campaign — and no side has ever remained in the top flight having opened up a top-flight season so poorly.
Not averse to making a bit of history, Howe’s Magpies are currently on course to become the one and only side to do just that.
But how have Newcastle gone from relegation fodder to comfortable in mid-table with such consummate ease? A lot of that is down to the positivity brought to the football club by the head coach and the team around him.
When Howe walked through the door, so did a wave of optimism, fresh ideas and hard work. He was the antithesis of the man he replaced, Steve Bruce.
Gone were the days of endless chatter at press conferences about the “quality of the opposition” and in its place a focus on what Newcastle can do, what will be achieved and some positive thinking.
That has not gone unnoticed in the dressing room, with a number of sources commenting on the switch in attitude and application within the ranks.
2. Trust the process
While belief changed mindsets off the field, training — and lots of it — has paid dividends on it.
Another thing that walked out the door with Bruce was the four-day weeks players had become accustomed to, and even more frustrated with.
An analogue manager in a digital age is how one insider put it to me when describing Bruce’s approach to things at St. James’ Park.
No longer do players revel in the prospect of another day off, another night to go enjoy themselves — players of today are nothing like those brought up in the 1980s and 1990s. Certain standards, and an intensity and planning to training, are taken as a given by the modern footballer — this was something Bruce lacked, and Howe has in abundance.
Much like they did under Rafa Benitez, there is a sense within the group now that if plans, drawn up in Howe’s office, are followed, results will follow. That was never the case under Bruce.
3. Sharpening blunted tools
Too many good players, even average ones, looked well below par under Bruce. Many have been given a new lease of life in black and white under former Bournemouth boss Howe.
Improvements can be seen in the game of Sean Longstaff, Emil Krafth, Joe Willock, Jamaal Lascelles and Fabian Schar.
But the most stark difference in performance has come from Ryan Fraser, Jonjo Shelvey and Joelinton.
Shelvey looked like a blunt instrument for too long under Bruce, bar a positive end to his first season in charge. Too often the fall guy for poor performances, he looked like a player accelerating out the St. James’ Park exit door with every game that passed by.
Now, he’s an integral part of a midfield three with balance, ability to dictate and control.
Alongside him Brazilian Joelinton has turned from a poor No.9 and rank average No.10, to one of the most statistically successful midfielders on the planet on current form. His ability to close down spaces and win the ball high has relieved pressure on his team in a way his labored, back-to-goal routine of two years ago could only dream of.
It has to be remembered that change only came about when Howe was brave enough to trust the player with an unusually deep role, following a committed, all-action showing in the battling, 10-man home draw with Norwich City.
And finally, Fraser has been, quite simply, a revelation. His pace, his drive and quality in the final third have more than made up for Allan Saint-Maximin’s drop-off in form and fitness.
Fraser’s recent form has likely saved his NUFC career.
4. The pursuit of perfection
Perfection never sleeps. It’s hard to see how head coach Howe does much of that either.
Arriving before anyone else — a regular training ground attendee at 6 a.m. — and the last to leave, Howe is setting the kind of example Bruce needed to, but showed little appetite in ever doing.
Inspirational messages have been plastered all over the walls of the training ground, as well as in the dressing rooms home and away.
Training drills are tailored to every opponent, plans are worked with and without the ball, as well as for every eventuality, including going down to 10 men.
Attention to detail is one of the reasons the club’s owners were attracted to Howe, and it’s the small things that are making the real differences come match day.
As much as perfection can never be reached, nor will its pursuit under Howe ever waver. His next bastion is improvements to the Newcastle training ground, with two trips to “better facilities” completed already, and we’re less than three months into the calendar year. That, in many ways, tells its own story about the lack of development and financing of infrastructure under the last regime.
5. Transfers — they’ve definitely played their part, too
The whole point of this piece is to take the focus away from the idea that Newcastle have bought their way out of trouble, however the deals done in January cannot be ignored.
All five, to differing degrees, have been transformative, but two, in particular, have shone — and they were probably the least high-profile in winter trading.
While Kieran Trippier’s quality shone bright but was darkened by injury quite quickly, Bruno Guimaraes’ slow burn has dazzled of late and Chris Wood’s physicality has boosted an ailing frontline, the introduction of Dan Burn and Matt Targett to the left-hand side of the back four has been a real masterstroke by Howe.
For too long converted right-winger Matt Ritchie was asked to fill in at left-back this season; his inability to grasp his newly found defensive responsibilities proving to be as alien to him as three points would prove to the team as a whole.
Meanwhile, skipper Lascelles, drained of his powers by some error-strewn performances, was asked to carry a backline that lacked leaders, quality and, ultimately, anyone willing to take responsibility.
With Burn and Targett, two proven Premier League performers, all of that has changed quite sharply.
Targett’s quality of delivery, close to matching that of Ritchie, has been coupled with a tenacity, energy and defensive awareness not seen on Tyneside since the likes of Davide Santon or Olivier Bernard.
Tucked slightly inside is Burn, seen by many as the form left-sided central defender in the Premier League, and surely only cost a spot in Gareth Southgate’s most recent England setup by his age, 29, and lack of involvement at all on the international scene.
There’s a solidity and reliability about the Newcastle backline now — and that will only develop further when Trippier’s inevitable return is confirmed, hopefully sooner rather than later.
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