What has gone wrong at Newcastle? After four defeats in their last five Premier League matches, not to mention exits in the Carabao Cup and Champions League, January’s fixture list looks ominious too…
Newcastle are on the slide.
After one Premier League defeat in 10 it’s now four losses in their last five games, including back-to-back humblings at the hands of relegation-threatened Luton and Nottingham Forest.
Throw in the disastrous exit from Europe at home to AC Milan, where a Europa League play-off spot was blown as they gambled for a Champions League last-16 place, and the agonising Carabao Cup loss at Chelsea on penalties, where they’d had one foot in the semis until Kieran Trippier’s last-gasp error, and it’s been a miserable – and disastrous – month for the club.
Their stellar 2023 has burnt out. Eddie Howe and his players need to re-find their spark quickly.
But the New Year doesn’t come with glad tidings: Liverpool (a), Man City (h) and Aston Villa (a) await in a brutal run of Premier League games.
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After going to Anfield, Newcastle also have a trip to rivals Sunderland in the FA Cup. It’s a tie the more pessimistic Magpies supporters will be dreading given their club’s recent form. That is a game Newcastle dare not lose.
But there is little margin for error in the league, now, either, if they’re to repeat their feats of last season and grab another shot at the Champions League.
After the 1-0 win over Man Utd at the very start of December, Newcastle were three points off the top four. They’re now seven points back in that race – and likely to lose further ground this week when Tottenham and Man City play their games in hand.
So how do Newcastle turn it around? We take a look at the key factors behind their form – and reasons to cheer and fear what comes next…
Tired bodies and tired minds take their toll
‘Intensity is our identity’. That’s the mantra under Howe at Newcastle but their intensity on the pitch has suffered as the intensity of matches has taken its toll during the past month.
With injuries depleting Howe’s options, the same players were asked to go again and again and again through November and December, as the demands of the Premier League and Champions League ramped up.
There has still been the quality to pull off the occasional result – Chelsea, Man Utd and Fulham have all been outclassed – but in between this is a group of players who visibly ran out of steam together.
Tired bodies but also tired minds – see the string of mistakes from the usually reliable Trippier as evidence of the latter. The fast start against Forest faded but it wasn’t the first time that has happened recently. The game with Milan stands out as another example.
The hope from Howe, though, is that in January he and his players can finally catch their breath. The fixtures may be extremely tough but at least there will be time to properly prepare for them. After eight games in December, there are only four scheduled for next month.
“Now we get a chance to train probably for the first time in months so let’s hope that makes a difference to how we look,” he said after the loss to Forest. “It will be nice to build up to games, rather than just resting between games. Possibly we have suffered from the inability to train.”
Injuries a huge factor in slump – but are the problems spreading?
Newcastle’s injury problem this season has been hugely damaging.
While many managers up and down the league have complained about missing players, the scale of Newcastle’s injury issues was put in the spotlight by a Sky Sports study earlier this month.
Going into the festive period, Newcastle had more players missing with injury and suspension (13) than any other side in the division. Only Brentford have lost more days to injury this season than Newcastle.
In total, 19 of Howe’s squad have been affected by injury at some point. Another top-three placing he’d rather not have.
The lack of options has put increased pressure on Howe’s other players, who have had to play weekend-midweek every week since November’s international break.
But the defeats to Luton and Forest are alarming because they have come despite Newcastle being able to welcome back some players from the treatment room.
Their absentees list is still important but the back four so easily cut open by Forest was the back four which recorded the Premier League’s joint-best defensive numbers last season. The side which was toothless at Luton contained Callum Wilson, Anthony Gordon and Miguel Almiron, with Alexander Isak used off the bench – Howe’s first-choice attackers.
The fear is Newcastle’s fit-again first-teamers aren’t firing now. That extra time on the training pitch feels like a necessity.
Is Howe a victim of his own success?
Newcastle – for all their recent issues – are still ahead of schedule. They weren’t supposed to be beating Paris St-Germain in the Champions League this season or trying to back up a first cup final appearance since 1999.
Howe took over with Newcastle relegation-threatened and disconnected with their fanbase. 102 games later they are being criticised for failing to qualify from a tough Champions League group and sitting seventh in the Premier League.
Perspective is key and January also brings a transfer window and a chance to bolster resources. But perspective, along with patience, are rarities in football. All connected with Newcastle have got a taste of success and will be hungry for more.
Howe’s progress at Newcastle has been built during long days on the training ground. Patterns of play, defensive structures, set-piece plans… these are the core elements he will return to during the next month.
He and the Newcastle fans will be desperate to see the outcome of that work returned in much-needed positive results in the coming weeks. The slide needs to stop now.