The juggling act Eddie Howe must pull off to reboot Newcastle’s season

Eddie Howe could not prevent defeats to Manchester City and Liverpool

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“In hindsight, you would always do things differently,” said Eddie Howe. In hindsight, there is relatively little Newcastle would change about his 21-month reign. Yet for United fans of a certain vintage, Sunday’s 2-1 loss to Liverpool may have had echoes of the 4-3 defeat in 1996, a great game whose greatness can only be appreciated by one side, with the other left to reflect on the possible cost.

It is a point of the season where perceptions alter swiftly. If Newcastle produced the outstanding performance of the opening weekend, thrashing Aston Villa 5-1, suggesting they may be the second best team in the country, two weeks later they find themselves level on points with Wolves and in the bottom half of the table. Newcastle, who only lost one of their first 22 league games last season, have been beaten in two of the first three now.

The alternative perspective is to note that they lost the same two fixtures – Manchester City away and Liverpool at home – last season, when they also beat Villa by four goals. Arguably no one had a harder group of their first three games (or four, given they visit Brighton next). In their different ways, City and Liverpool represent the barometers of progress for Newcastle – Pep Guardiola’s side because they are the ultimate, Jurgen Klopp’s side because Newcastle lost twice to them last season – and these results imply there has been insufficient progress to defeat either.

The manner of the results, however, ought to irritate a manager, even one – in public, anyway – who is as mild-mannered and measured as Howe. There were two types of missed opportunity: at the Etihad Stadium because City were exhausted, three days after the Super Cup, and at St James’ Park because Liverpool were a man down for an hour, a goal behind for almost as long. In each case, a hard-running Newcastle team failed to make a physical advantage count. They were too timid in Manchester, registering a lone shot on target. They were twice inches from a second goal against Liverpool but still lost their way in the second half; a difficulty breaking down a deep, disciplined 4-4-1 formation prompted the thought that Newcastle may regret missing out on James Maddison, the kind of creator they do not possess.

Howe’s blueprint worked spectacularly well last season. The amendment to it this year seems simply to entail more of the same. And yet that created an issue itself. In all three games so far, Anthony Gordon has come off for Harvey Barnes. It speaks to a strategy, to exhaust right-backs with one high-speed runner and then replace him with another. It worked perfectly against Villa, with Barnes coming off the bench to score and assist. It was necessitated at City, with Gordon on the brink of a red card when he went off. Arguably, though, it backfired against Liverpool: Gordon was the game’s outstanding player and Trent Alexander-Arnold presumably relieved to see his fellow Scouser depart. Gordon and Barnes may have a job-share, but it doesn’t mean they have to share the minutes every match. As Klopp’s changes made Liverpool better, Howe’s made Newcastle worse.


Eddie Howe gestures on the touchline during the defeat

It highlights a wider issue: Newcastle needed more players, now possess greater strength in depth and Howe has to rotate more. But he also needs to know when not to change: nor did Newcastle benefit from removing Joelinton and Sandro Tonali on Sunday. Meanwhile, Bruno Guimaraes, who has been below par at the start of the campaign, stayed on and gave the ball away for Darwin Nunez’s winner. If substitutions for the sake of it scarcely worked, Newcastle face the challenge of keeping the same chemistry from different combinations of players, particularly when the Champions League starts.

And if Newcastle seemed to have covered most bases in their summer recruitment drive, the one gap appeared to be at centre-back, where there was a lack of quality alternatives to Fabian Schar and Sven Botman. And then the Dutchman limped off against Liverpool.

No team conceded fewer Premier League goals last year than Newcastle, yet it will be hard to be as frugal with a combination of Schar and either Dan Burn or Jamaal Lascelles; indeed, perhaps Burn could have done better for Nunez’s decider. Their defensive additions this summer have been youthful full-backs, in Lewis Hall and Tino Livramento. Now a club with only two clean sheets in 23 games must determine whether, and if they can afford, to pursue a central defender now.

All of which brings a shift in feel after the euphoria the evisceration of Villa generated. Newcastle’s recent failings have come within the context of vast, swift improvement: too unambitious against City, not streetwise enough against Liverpool, not seizing the moment in either game. They can note the precedent from last season, when they were condemned to defeat in injury-time by Liverpool and responded with a 17-game unbeaten run. They have a better pool of players now but they may need better decisions, on and off the pitch, than those taken in the last two matches.

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