I would be lying to you if I said I wasn’t surprised by Eddie Howe’s decision to rotate as many as four starters from the Crystal Palace game to the one away against Norwich last weekend. Howe 1, Antonio 0. If you caught my preview of the game, you know that I went with—until the day after proved it wrong—the logical assumption that Howe would basically keep playing the same hand and put the same lineup on the pitch for the nth time in a row. Welp.
Christian Wood, Miguel Almirón, Jonjo Shelvey, and Fabian Schar got a much-needed reprise and none of them made the field as starters nor came on to it off the bench. My reasoning was simple: Newcastle’s schedule read Norwich, Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal, and Burnley with the Magpies entering Saturday’s game virtually saved from relegation. The conclusion? Strike the iron when it’s hot and it’s safe to go all-in to secure the three points, win those two matches against relegation-zone clubs, and play for fun against the three members of the Big Six.
Only, you know, I was wrong. That said, I’m happy to have been wrong as the only reason for that was my brain still not fully processing the fact that Newcastle is about to turn the Big Six into a Sublime Seven. Uh, oh, flex on the giants.
Howe thought of Norwich’s match as a true opportunity to stomp a minion while rotating the full-time starters. And it worked to perfection.
Don’t get accustomed, though, because Liverpool is visiting St James’ Park this weekend to kick Match Day 35 off. Applying the same reasoning as Howe seemingly used this past Saturday, well, it makes sense to think about the oft-used XI to come back to the pitch from the get-go against the Reds. In other words, we’re about to welcome back the likes of Jonjo and Wood to the squad, while Almiron and Schär should also play important roles against the title contenders.
Joe Willock, Jamaal Lascelles, Jacob Murphy, and Sean Longstaff were the ones picking up the slack in which were their 23rd, 20th, 13th, and 12th starts in this season’s Premier League campaign. All of Wood, Almiron, Shelvey, and Schar have started more games than at least two of the former four this year, so they should be back at it this Saturday.
In fact, Howe clarified his decisions after Newcastle’s last game against Norwich after the ref blew the whistle one final time.
“Three games in six days. Norwich had a free week so we couldn’t come here tired. We needed fresh bodies, one or two players had a few niggles as well so we didn’t want to risk them. I was really pleased with the guys that came in. They [and the team as a whole] looked very good physically today for certain points in the game.
“Also, I think it’s healthy for the group to do that as well, it shows we do have a capable squad and that I’ve got options to choose from, plus competition for places as well which is absolutely vital.”
With Liverpool playing against Villarreal in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League semifinals today and Saturday’s kick-off scheduled for the earliest timeslot (12:30pm BST), it might be the Reds and Jurgen Klopp who are forced to make some sort of rotation for the game against Newcastle—though that might prove an ill-advised decision considering Manchester City’s and Newcastle’s current form.
Back in December, when these two squads faced each other, Howe used a quirk that had not been put in practice then but has now become an absolute masterstroke with just a handful of games remaining in the schedule: Midfield Joelinton.
Liverpool dominated the game at Anfield and blasted United for a 3-1 victory over the Magpies. The Toon took the 0-1 lead away from home just seven minutes into it (Jonjo Shelvey) but could do nothing to prevent Pool from dumping two first-half goals and a bonus one three minutes short of full-time. Take a look at these three visualizations from that game.
The fact that Liverpool was so dominant is highlighted here. Newcastle touched the ball and was forced into acting mostly on their own half (defending positions to the left). That made it hard for someone like Joelinton—a box-to-box player in this game, at least on paper before kick-off—to be tracked properly. Anyway, here is his isolated map.
Not bad for a “forward”, is it? Joelinton completely changed his game as part of a five-man midfield line in which he took the mid-left centerfield position. The moves back were fantastic and he covered two of the pitch three-thirds easily.
Looking at his passes paints a sound picture of how good Joelinton was in his first start in that role. Again, the match was as tough as it would ever get, but the Brazilian still delivered completing 17 of 27 passes, getting the third-most clearances among Magpies, blocking one shot, and tackling opponents a game-high five times while only getting dribbled past once.
Joelinton’s offensive prowess was already known, but he performed nicely in the defensive transition and phase of the game. Pundits were quick to highlight Howe’s decision and label it a wrong one taking advantage of Liverpool’s easy victory. How wrong, precisely, they all were.
While Joelinton was deployed in the forward line against Norwich—moving from the lone striker position to the left-wing a few minutes into the game—this weekend we will most probably see him manning the midfield along with fellow Brazilian Bruno and Newcastle staple Shelvey.
The New Newcastle has arrived and is here to stay for good. Enough with the rotations.
It’s time to start putting opponents in their position and it all starts this weekend against the second-best team in the Premier League while running their title run—until MD36 when the Magpies will have a chance at defeating Manchester City, of course, and thus of restoring the balance of the Universe.