After two weeks on the training ground, Eddie Howe returns to the Premier League arena as head coach of Newcastle United on Saturday.
Now working for Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, the world’s richest football club owner, Howe needs results fast with Newcastle second from bottom and five points from safety.
Indeed, the Magpies have endured the worst start to a league season in their history after a 1-1 draw at Brighton and Hove Albion prior to the international break extended their winless run to 11 matches.
For all the talk of exciting January moves for Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele or Marc-Andre ter Stegen – Barcelona’s expensively assembled squad, reports say, is ripe for picking – there is a job to do first, and that starts at home to Brentford.
Burnley and Norwich City, the previous two teams to break winless starts before Newcastle, got their first victories against Brentford, yet just one of the Magpies’ past eight bosses has won his first Premier League match in charge of the club (Alan Pardew versus Liverpool in 2010).
Has Howe, who rescued Bournemouth from relegation out of the Football League and took them all the way to the top flight, already had an impact on Tyneside?
Saturday’s encounter at St James’ Park should tell us plenty – and these are the key themes to look out for…
Fix the defence
The biggest worry around both Newcastle and Howe relates to their defensive records.
Only Norwich (26) have conceded more goals than Newcastle (24) this season, while the Magpies’ opponents have had a league-high 21.6 expected goals. That back line clearly needs attention.
But Howe’s Bournemouth conceded at least 61 goals in each of their five seasons in the top flight, making him far from an obvious candidate to address Newcastle’s biggest need.
There is a lack of quality options within that defence, but Graeme Jones, the interim coach who has taken a role on Howe’s staff, attempted to stem the tide during his short reign as the main man.
At odds with the more aggressive pressing approach Howe is likely to adopt, Jones’ side sat deep. Across games against Crystal Palace, Chelsea and Brighton, Newcastle had the highest PPDA (an incredibly passive 22.6 opposition passes per defensive action) and the second-deepest average starting position (just 37.5 metres from their own goal) in the league. The Magpies still conceded five times and earned only two points.
Regardless of what changes Howe makes at the back – and there have to be changes – those in front also require greater co-ordination.
In Sean Longstaff (52.9), Joe Willock (49.9) and Miguel Almiron (49.7), Newcastle have players who rank first, fifth and sixth among central midfielders for pressures per 90 minutes this season. Their haphazard pressing, lacking any clear cohesion, has succeeded only in leaving gaps behind them, however.
Neither Longstaff nor Willock featured at Brighton, while Almiron played on the right flank and was taken off after 74 minutes.
Keep the ball
The pressure on Newcastle’s defence would be relieved by an ability to keep the ball for any extended period. Their average possession of 37.3 per cent is comfortably the lowest in the division this season.
But that is nothing new; Newcastle have ranked in the bottom three in this regard in each season since they were promoted in 2017.
“We hopefully have nudged it along a little bit this week,” Jones said before the Brighton game, where Newcastle had just 34.1 per cent of the ball. “You can’t go from how we played against Chelsea and Crystal Palace to being Barcelona overnight. It’s impossible, so it needs to be small steps.”
Howe, Newcastle will hope, should be able to help with those steps. Since Bournemouth were first promoted, only Leeds United last season (57.8 per cent) have averaged more possession in their first year in the Premier League than the Cherries in 2015-16 (51.1 per cent).
Although Bournemouth’s possession figures then dropped with each campaign until they were relegated with 43.4 per cent of the ball, Howe has the opportunity to make a strong start against a Brentford side who rank 15th in the division for possession (44.9 per cent).
Feed the forwards
Having more possession should fit hand in hand with getting Newcastle’s dangerous attacking players on the ball more often. Callum Wilson and Allan Saint-Maximin have too often been isolated.
“We have been a lot further from the goal than we’d like to be,” Wilson told Chronicle Live this week.
The certainty of a full-time appointment should at least allow Newcastle to settle on a system that suits both players after drastically shifting their approach following each miserable run of Steve Bruce’s tenure. Tactical flexibility, as Howe should show, is one thing, having no proven plan to fall back on is another. At Bournemouth, that was some variation on a 4-4-2.
Even with Newcastle struggling, Wilson has managed to score 16 goals since the start of last season. Among the 14 players to net 15 or more in that time, only Mohamed Salah (127), Harry Kane (163) and Dominic Calvert-Lewin (164) have averaged fewer minutes per goal than the Magpies’ number nine (167).
“A fit Callum Wilson is as good as anybody in the Premier League,” Jones said.
Of course, Howe has experience with Wilson and with Ryan Fraser, both of whom he brought to Bournemouth.
Under Howe in 2018-19, Wilson and Fraser combined for 12 Premier League goals – at that time, the second most of any duo in the competition’s history in a single season, behind Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton (13 in 1995-96).
12 – Ryan Fraser and Callum Wilson combined for 12 Premier League goals in 2018-19 – only Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton (13 in 1994-95) have combined for more in a single campaign in the competition. Toons. pic.twitter.com/HnaNA0eWKC
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) September 7, 2020
Wilson added: “I am exactly the same as the manager coming in – he’s got this attacking style of play. As a striker, you are licking your lips knowing you are going to get more opportunities.”
If Howe can help the ex-Bournemouth pair reprise that form and build some sort of platform behind them, Newcastle should yet have enough to survive – perhaps boosted by a winning start against Brentford.
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