In a time where society seems to have forgotten (or has a strong desire to forget) about the coronavirus, Eddie Howe oversaw his first match as Newcastle manager from a hotel room. The coach had received a positive COVID-19 test in the buildup to the game against Brentford, leaving assistant Jason Tindall in charge on the sideline.
Despite his absence, Newcastle looked up for it. St. James’ Park was rocking, the players appeared motivated, and the spectators were treated to an enthralling game. Things didn’t feel that way under Steve Bruce. Eddie Howe’s men looked to play on the front foot, pressing high and aggressively in a new, more progressive 3-4-3 (below). There was a clear attacking intent.
We were treated to a chaotic 3-3 draw that Newcastle probably deserved to win. In the end, a terrible mistake and an unfortunate deflection cost them three valuable points.
Yet what I took from the game wasn’t that Newcastle still hadn’t won a game this year, nor that they seemed destined for relegation. I realized that Eddie Howe feels like the right man for this job, and he wasn’t even there yet.
Prior to accepting the position on November 9th, Eddie Howe had been away from football for a year. Newcastle could have probably appointed a plethora of “better” managers in the public’s eye — Unai Emery, or any of the other recently appointed coaches — but they chose Howe, and for good reason.
We’re talking about a man who guided Bournemouth, a club who had never been in the English top flight, from League One to the Premier League. Once there, Eddie Howe guided them to four seasons of safety, including both a 9th and 12th place finish. It was only after 8 seasons in charge, and after receiving a tremendous amount of respect from his Premier League constituents, that Eddie Howe was sacked. His Bournemouth side, known for playing a more expansive, possession style system, crumbled in the year they were relegated.
These things happen. It’s close to impossible to remain the coach of a single team effectively for such a long period of time. Things go stale and players become less responsive. I know I (and probably many of you) have felt this at several points in life. It happened to Chris Wilder last year at Sheffield United; it happened to Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. In a sport that has become so inextricably linked with financial success, the leashes on managers have gotten much shorter. There is an instant need for results. In fact, only 12 football coaches (of any gender) have managed a single side for a longer period of time than Eddie Howe did at Bournemouth, ever.
So what should we expect from him at Newcastle?
First, let’s address the task at hand: catalyzing a team that sits bottom of the Premier League. The side had looked directionless under Steve Bruce. Sitting back and playing on the counter usually seems like a strategy deployed by sides scrapping at the bottom of the league, but it felt like Bruce’s trademark style. Newcastle’s defense simply isn’t good enough to hold up against sustained dominance from opponents, and opportunities in transitions can be so fickle.
Jonjo Shelvey has already come out and said the level of training has risen. Eddie Howe has apparently “galvanised training, and everyone has bought into what he wants to do.” Shelvey also claimed that it has been so intense that, during the last international break, he was in bed by 8PM every night.
This is because Eddie Howe wants to press. He doesn’t want to simply sit back and have to rely on the pace of Allan Saint-Maximin on the break. Or rather, he realizes they can’t afford to.
During Howe’s best times at Bournemouth, the Cherries attacking underlying numbers were at a level just behind the “big six.” Literally, 7th in key passes and 8th in total completed passes in 2017-18 (data from FBref). On the other hand, in the same season, Bournemouth were 19th in expected goals allowed.
These stats aren’t necessarily conclusive in determining how his teams played, but they do indicate a will to create (and concede) a plethora of opportunities at either end.
Howe also altered his setup frequently (pie chart below), proving to be tactically malleable in response to the different challenges opposing teams offered. You’ll notice he opted for a variation of a 4-4-2 (or a 4-4-1-1) in over half of Bournemouth’s matches in the Premier League. That is most likely down to personnel, given that his squad boasted the talented pair of Callum Wilson and Josh King, with Ryan Fraser and Junior Stanislas on the wings.
Howe’s first Newcastle teamsheet saw his new side set up in a 3-4-3, a system he hasn’t deployed so often, but did so for perhaps his most famous victory as a manager.
On January 31st, 2018, Bournemouth went to Stamford Bridge to face Antonio Conte’s Chelsea. Howe decided he’d set his side up to match Conte’s back three. This was a bold decision given injuries to several players, and the fact that they pressed in a man-to-man setup (below). However, it paid off as they constantly forced Chelsea into mistakes and defeated the Blues 3-0.
Last Saturday, it was clear that he wanted to match up with Brentford’s 3-4-3, the same way he had done against Chelsea. Although this time around, the players didn’t seem as well drilled as his ex-Bournemouth players. He had only been with the players for ten days.
The team lacked discipline at the back and were often caught in transition, leading to an extremely open game. Neither of the two midfielders (Willock and Shelvey) were necessarily defensive-minded. This was a tell-tale sign that Newcastle were heavily reliant on their press from the front, rather than shoring up spaces in and around their midfield.
The game plan would have worked better if Newcastle had better players at the back. Lascelles and Schar took turns getting bullied by Ivan Toney, and the wingbacks, Murphy and Ritchie (both wingers by trade), were constantly being caught out. Mbuemo and Toney found joy in slightly wider areas (below), and punished the Newcastle backline for positional errors.
Despite not winning the match and remaining winless on the season, Newcastle fans gave the players a standing ovation after the final whistle. The attack-intended performance gave them hope, something they didn’t feel under Steve Bruce.
This was a performance to build upon. Notably, Joelinton seemed to come to life. Beyond just having scored a crucial equalizing goal, he was as involved as anyone had ever seen. The Brazilian played as a right forward and took 61 touches of the ball against Brentford — his most ever in a Newcastle shirt. His pressing and defensive efforts caught the eye, leading me to believe that Eddie Howe may enjoy working with him.
After all, this is a player who showcased loads of potential at Hoffenheim under Julian Naglesmann — a manager famed for his emphasis on pressing. Joelinton looked to have that in his locker against Brentford. Combine that with Saint-Maximin’s ingenuity and Wilson’s goals, and Newcastle could be a danger going forward.
Howe’s Newcastle will only improve with time, although they don’t have much of it. The club will likely invest in players in January. It would be wise to address the defense centrally and out wide. A midfielder comfortable with covering lots of ground and breaking up play would also do them the world of good, as I expect their matches to be quite chaotic, like the one against Brentford. The only two players in the first-team squad aged 23 and under are Joe Willock and Jamal Lewis. Ideally, they would target younger players to revamp an aging squad, but time — and instant success — are of the essence.
The style of football Eddie Howe will implement is exciting — and feels like the purest way to play the sport. I expect them to score a lot of goals, and I expect them to concede a lot of goals.
They may still go down, but they’ll be worth watching on a weekly basis.