Newcastle United slumped to a 4-0 home defeat to Manchester City on Sunday, taking their tally of league losses to ten for the season. Add to this seven draws and just one win and you start to see just how severe the issues are at the Geordie club.
Newcastle sit 19th in the table, above Norwich City on goal difference, and three points from safety. Burnley, the only team Newcastle have tasted victory against in the league this season, are a point ahead in 18th but have three games in hand over the Magpies, while 17th-placed Watford also have the advantage of two games in hand.
Whilst the long-awaited financial takeover finally came to fruition in early October, ridding the club of the polarising Mike Ashley in the process, there has still been plenty of doom and gloom for the club. The team have averaged just 0.5 points per game so far this season, one game from the halfway point. If they were to continue at their current rate, then they would finish the season with just 21 points. For context, West Bromwich Albion’s 2004/05 total of 34 points is the lowest total ever for a club to stay in the Premier League.
Newcastle are currently seven points worse off than they were at the same stage of the season the last time that they were relegated in 2016. To have any chance of staying in England’s top flight, which is surely crucial to their short-term future under new ownership, the northeast club will likely have to average a win every other game for the remainder of the season. Given their form to date, the probability of such a dramatic turnaround seems remarkably low, but is there hope for Newcastle yet?
Is Eddie Howe the right man for the job?
The appointment of Eddie Howe as manager was the first major decision of the new regime. Whilst this appointment was welcomed by most fans, some feel it was an appointment that lacked ambition. This also wasn’t helped by the fact it took three weeks to appoint Howe, and bigger names such as Paulo Fonseca and Unai Emery had been strongly linked to the position prior to the former Bournemouth manager being given the job.
While Howe is rightfully credited with Bournemouth’s dramatic rise from League Two to the Premier League, and the way he kept the Cherries in the top flight for five seasons, he did ultimately oversee their relegation in 2020. The 44-year-old has been out of work since the relegation and is said to have been waiting for the right opportunity, although how many opportunities came his way in this time is unknown.
Howe is a manager who has a lot of respect in the game, however there are doubts over him which he is yet to put to bed. Firstly, his history of signings is poor when presented with the opportunity to spend higher transfer fees. With the funds his new employers have at their disposal this should have some alarm bells ringing. Examples of this misguided spending are £25 million on Jefferson Lerma, £19 million on Dominic Solanke, and Jordan Ibe for £15 million. Lerma and Solanke have finally started to show their worth in the Championship this season, but neither managed to impress in the Premier League, while Ibe never lived up to his early potential.
Another major doubt is in Howe’s ability to improve his teams defensively. Bournemouth were an exciting, attacking, team but in his five seasons in the Premier League Howe never adapted his side to improve their porous defence. Ultimately, this is what cost the south-coast side their place in the top flight. Newcastle couldn’t defend prior to Howe’s appointment, despite Steve Bruce repeatedly being criticised for his negative approach, and things haven’t improved since. The Magpies have the worst defensive record in the division, with 41 conceded in 18 games. However, unlike Howe’s Bournemouth side, Newcastle are also incredibly blunt in attack, averaging just a goal a game in the league this season.
Another, often overlooked, concern with Howe is that he has only ever managed one team aside from Bournemouth prior to taking the Newcastle job. Howe left his beloved Cherries to take the reigns at Burnley in January 2011, but left in October the following season, having finished 13th in his only full season in charge.
Newcastle squad simply not good enough
While there will be division over Howe’s credentials for the job, especially now that Newcastle have the richest owners in the Premier League, there is no getting away from the fact that the squad he has inherited is simply not good enough.
Newcastle have problems in every position on the pitch. Their goalkeeper situation is not fixed, with Martin Dubravka, Karl Darlow, and Freddie Woodman each having started four or more league games this season. In front of them, though, is where Howe’s biggest problems lie. At the weekend, Newcastle’s back four, from right to left, was Jacob Murphy, Jamaal Lascelles, Ciaran Clark, and Matt Ritchie.
Murphy and Ritchie are both better known for their work going forward and have been wingers for most of their careers, while Lascelles and Clark are both defenders who have now spent a long time out of form. Jamal Lewis is another option at left-back, but has found life difficult since his move from Norwich in 2020. Javier Manquillo, Emil Krafth, Paul Dummett, and Fabian Schar are all far too prone to errors to be the solution to Newcastle’s defensive problems.
While the defence is Newcastle’s weakest area, there is a real lack of quality throughout the squad. The midfield and attack are not good enough to counteract the defensive frailties, and there is often a disjointed feel to Newcastle’s attacking play. This is an area that Howe will be confident he has the ability to improve, but without letting in fewer goals at the other end, it is unlikely Newcastle can afford to have to score two or three goals to win a game each week.
Perhaps the only players that are genuinely good enough to help keep Newcastle in the division are Callum Wilson, Allan Saint-Maximin, Miguel Almiron, and, with the right mindset, Jonjo Shelvey. Joe Willock could perhaps be added into that list but his form this season has been a far cry from the inspired loan form that convinced Newcastle to spend £25 million to secure his services on a permanent basis in the summer. With that said, the January transfer window is a notoriously difficult time to make signings, especially now that clubs are more wary of the need for large squads to deal with any Covid outbreaks.
Can Newcastle attract right calibre of player to stay up?
Howe and the newly-assembled Newcastle backroom staff will have their work cut out to convince ay potential signings to join a club that seems destined for relegation. The newfound wealth of the club will also be a factor that any targets will consider, but this has the potential to attract the wrong calibre of player.
If Newcastle are to put up a fight this season then they need to sign the right kind of player. Players who see the club as a big payday will not solve the club’s crisis and it will be important that the recruitment process weans out those with the wrong intentions.
As is the case with any club who is taken over, Newcastle have been linked with anyone and everyone in the last few months. The crucial thing for the club, however, is that they walk before they can run. Glamour signings are not the answer and the focus must be on players who can come in and make an instant impact. Perhaps this will mean that the club looks to players already in the Premier League so that there are no issues with settling in. If a player takes two months to settle in it will be too late for them to make any material impact on Newcastle’s top flight status this season.
It will be interesting to see if there is a clear plan or policy in place when it comes to transfers, as there seems to have been little in the way of direction from the new owners so far. The manager situation became a bit of a mess in the public eye and there is uncertainty over how prepared the new owners were to be in this position.
There have been some big names linked who could genuinely be a real asset to the club. The likes of Dele Alli, Kieran Trippier, Jesse Lingard, and James Tarkowski, are just some of the names that have been floated recently. It is difficult to argue against these being strong signings and they would be a real sign of intent. Arguably, each of these players also have something to prove at this stage in their careers.
Whether Newcastle can convince players to join in January is the issue. Most players that are tempted by the opportunity to play for a club of Newcastle’s stature, with their loyal following and, now, ambition to match, may be better advised to wait to see if they are a Premier League side come the summer before making any decision.
However, should they decide to take the risk and Newcastle do stay up, they could find themselves joining a club at the start of a really exciting new era.