I was watching the Arsenal vs. Manchester United match on Sunday when the announcers referenced that Premier League fans had witnessed an exciting Saturday filled with three hat tricks the preceding day.
Maybe it was due to the extent that I drowned my sorrows, but I had to think for a minute before it dawned on me: Son Heung-min, Erling Haaland, and… Evan Ferguson?
Apparently, Google was surprised too, as the game recap available over the search engine allows you to highlight any player from the Newcastle and Brighton lineups except for the 18-year-old Irishman who put his name on the map at our expense.
As everyone is aware, the 3-1 defeat at Brighton marked the third loss in a row for Eddie Howe and created enough of a backlash that his safety at the club had to be clarified.
After the collapse against a 10-man Liverpool Klopp dubbed “One to Tell Our Grandchildren About,” I was shocked by a lot of the vitriol I saw on sports media. After all, crumbling from what appeared to be a naive gameplan versus the Reds after leading most of the contest didn’t indicate the Magpies were being outclassed or outworked. And a loss to Manchester City in their home opener after winning the Treble? Understandable to say the least.
But then came Brighton, in what proved to be a lopsided affair highlighting everything that is deteriorating in this squad.
Firstly, hopefully, we can all agree that when Howe moved Joelinton into the midfield, it was his ability to disrupt and become a physical force that completed his transformation.
As the “Heir Apparent” for both Brazil and Real Madrid, Bruno Guimaraes became the next move to strengthen the Newcastle central defense and release runners into opposing channels.
Finally, the arrival of Sandro Tonali this summer introduced a quality defensive midfielder so valuable to AC Milan that Manager Stefano Pioli has converted the team from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3 to accommodate their new roster, and his absence as one of the two DMs playing in front of a four-player backline.
So why am I spotlighting these three who currently occupy the midfield three in Howe’s 4-3-3 system? Is it me, or are they all playing the same role? Against Brighton, the midfield maintained a small deep cluster just above the backline all game, allowing for no offensive outlet apart from Anthony Gordon and Miggy Almiron on the wings. Newcastle have a €70m 22-year-old striker in Alexander Isak essentially playing the Michail Antonio Role on an island reminiscent of the one on David Moyes’ system.
For anyone criticizing Bruno, I recommend you rewatch the match and follow his movements when we lose the ball near midfield. Every single lost possession, he is the only non-backline outfielder who you can see sprint to backtrack and give support to the backline, including on Ferguson’s first goal. There are multiple instances when Newcastle wins the ball back near the 18-yard box, a player makes a five-yard pass to Bruno in the middle, and he’s stuck with a huge space ahead of him and no one to pass the ball forward to.
Tonali and Bruno aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and there is an obvious missing link between the midfield and the forwards, so it made me wonder how dedicated Howe is to the 4-3-3 system. In researching his tactics at Bournemouth, I found a fantastic article by Jacob Whitehead of The Athletic chronicling Howe’s transition from 4-2-2 to 4-3-3. One of the key things that Whitehead praises is the same tight three in the center of the pitch who have outlets on either wing after winning the ball by disrupting the middle of the field.
Unfortunately, tacticians like Jurgen Klopp and Roberto De Zerbi deduced the same patterns, and when you have players up front like Darwin Nunez, Mo Salah, or Kaoru Mitoma that hunt along the wide channels our midfield triangle is forced to backtrack deep in the same shape. Whitehead’s article celebrates Howe’s tactics by pointing out an example of when the 4-3-3 midfield successfully counterattacks for a goal with Joe Willock, Sean Longstaff, and Joelinton filling the roles.
Much of the recent noise suggests a starting role for Longstaff or laments the absence of Willock. But I don’t think anyone could reasonably suggest that inserting Longstaff to replace Bruno or Tonali would increase the offensive output. My point is that having three midfielders who were defensively accountable may have been the primary ingredient to make Howe’s system sizzle.
Times change, however, and Newcastle are far from the upstart overachievers of last year. Our left defensive side will be a combination of Dan Burn, Matt Targett, and the 18-year-old Lewis Hall (recently acquired from Chelsea) until at least next January transfer window.
It may be time to evolve and find a shape that lends more support to the wide channels both offensively and defensively. Brentford were more than happy to sacrifice ball possession all last season in order to focus on the counter-strike. Our next match vs. the Bees at St James’ Park in two weeks could be the perfect opportunity for Howe to throw in some surprises.