I’ll be the first to admit that after a lukewarm January transfer window and a February of lackluster results that culminated in a 2-0 loss to Manchester United in the EFL Cup final, Champions League football seemed miles off and I was just hoping that we could hold on to a spot in the European zone.
It even made sense to rationalize having a long run in the Conference League that could provide more beneficial experience than a quick exit in the Champion’s League group stage. Now? I will never doubt Eddie Howe again.
In March we witnessed Tottenham’s structure combust into flames after Antonio Conte’s verbal assault and departure. Chelsea then cheerfully decided to throw some £80m into the bonfire of a lost season by sacking Graham Potter seven months into a five-year contract. That’s after a January transfer record of £323m, almost six times more than the second-highest spender Arsenal at £59m.
Throw in another red-card suspension for Casemiro and a 7-0 annihilation at the hands of Liverpool for Man United, and it makes Howe’s 4-0 record over a goal differential of 11-5 in the last few weeks even more amazing.
What’s even more impressive is that Howe really hasn’t changed anything.
The Toon are still heavily dependent on a right side favoring a midfielder who will track back and cover while Kieran Trippier overlaps relentlessly and constantly feeds crosses into the box for runners.
Miggy Almiron is out, and Jacob Murphy has transitioned into the starting lineup to continue the press on defenders and push the line to make space for Tripper.
Likewise, whether it’s Alexander Isak or Callum Wilson up front, goals are coming from Wilson’s head or Isak brilliantly contorting his legs for a finish.
Finally, it’s important to recognize he sits on top of a group of managers this season who have seen themselves rise to the top based on steady confidence and strong tactical acumen.
Among the teams in the top 10, it’s been Eddie Howe, Brighton’s Roberto De Zerbi, and Aston Villa’s Unai Emery who have found that magical middle ground of inspiration and fire without the whining, complaining about refs, or over-the-top antics that lead to red cards.
The managers who fall into these negative categories should be easily recognizable, as their squads are suffering and dropping points for it.
Steady Eddie has not once this season made himself the headline, even as the face of the richest team in the Premier League through both transfer windows. Even when the team falls behind, the parts and the speed may change but we don’t see the four-at-once substitutions of David Moyes or the ever-changing defensive lines that have plagued the relegation fodder this season.
Not to mention that Chris Wood and Jonjo Shelvey’s departures have been roundly criticized in Nottingham and are currently pushing Steve Cooper to the front of the firing line.
On the other hand, now that Newcastle’s consistent blueprint has found a replenished supply of goals and we are watching more players return from injury, it has illuminated a very clear sore spot.
If the Magpies are going to continue to play out of the back, there has to be a more reliable anchor on the left side that can control the outlet. Starting in January opponents were very clearly trying to target the left flank for their attacks, and while our defensive unit has been a fortress, they find themselves having so many issues passing out of the back that we are now seeing frustration kicks out of bounds and it’s starting to give Nick Pope the yips.
I believe Allan Saint-Maximin has found his place on the squad as a facilitator on the left, and Willock has a place in the starting squad with an ability to make runs up top as well as break up the counter.
Should we make it through to Europe, especially with a top-four finish, I see an upgrade in the left flank that can provide stability and relieve pressure on Pope’s feet moving forward necessary.
After that, we can ride Howe’s map into the sunset.
While I’m sure Howe has done enough to make you a believer for this season, do you see him as a long-term fit to lead us to Europe? Will his system become a legacy similar to those of Klopp or Guardiola? Let me know in the comments section below!