When Eddie Howe became Newcastle manager and was tasked with navigating a safe passage to Premier League survival, he quickly realized there were two separate routes out of the relegation zone.
Both were dangerous, but one offered infinitely greater scenic appeal and, ignoring some scary hairpin turns, Howe took it.
Rather than setting up Newcastle with a well-drilled back three in low blocks and hoping that a light possession team would remain reasonably fit to win counter-attacking victories, he decided to start creating a front-footed XI, monopolizing the ball and passing smoothly. .
Rafael Benítez and, more recently, Steve Bruce may have escaped a series of relegation skirmishes by playing with the handbrake, but the former Bournemouth manager was determined to channel his inner Kevin Keegan and get it right. differently.
It helped that, unlike Benítez – still adored on Tyneside – and Bruce, he was not working for a penny-less landlord in the mold of Mike Ashley, but for extraordinarily wealthy Saudi lords determined to make the club the successful showpiece a broader exercise in the application of image-altering geopolitical soft power or, as some see it, sportswashing.
The only problem was that Howe didn’t have enough players to fit his plan, had only won two of his 11 games since taking over from Steve Bruce and now needed his nearly £90m outlay. sterling in the transfer market to pay dividends.
All that matters now is whether Bruno Guimarães, Kieran Trippier, Chris Wood, Dan Burn and loanee Matt Targett can ensure Howe succeeds where Bruce, Steve McClaren and Alan Pardew have all, to varying degrees, failed.
Although they have worked with very different groups of players, the common denominator between these three managers is that, each time they have tried to wean Newcastle off the counter-attack that has, for more than a decade, been the team’s default style, they encountered significant issues.
Benítez, well aware that he lacked the necessary midfielders to create, control and maintain a passing rhythm, did not even try, preferring to hone the team’s ability on the break.
Howe finally has a choreographer capable of becoming a cornerstone around which to base the reconstruction of Newcastle. Brazilian Guimarães, a dynamic defensive midfielder, signed from Lyon for an initial fee of around £35million and the 24-year-old’s speed of adaptation to English football will most likely determine if and when Newcastle escape the last three.
Guimarães, often described as a “complete midfielder”, has honed his craft on the futsal courts, rarely loses the ball and is able to hold onto it in the tightest of places. Much has been rightly said about Newcastle’s main weakness in central defence, but a big part of the problem has been the lack of a protective quasi-sweeping anchor midfielder.
Guimarães isn’t nicknamed the ‘Piano Carrier’ for nothing and his application skills could still make Jamaal Lascelles and his teammates look like an infinitely better back four than they often have. this season.
Much, however, hinges on both how Howe’s new boys gel and how that club stalwart Bruce privately claimed Benítez had been ‘brainwashed’ into a cautious mindset. counter-attack to adapt to the change in managerial vision.
The about-face in recruiting philosophy has been even more drastic. It is impossible to imagine Ashley spending £25m on Wood, 30, £13m on Burn, 29, and a fee of up to £15m on Trippier, 31.
Ashley was always reluctant to acquire players over the age of 25 due to their lack of resale potential, but this policy often left the team light on experience and leadership and Newcastle were relegated twice under his management. .
If survival is assured, the Saudis will rightly argue that the so-called ‘Newcastle tax’ was well worth paying Burnley, Brighton and Atlético Madrid.
Although Burn has been a regular fixture at Brighton, he has been in career form recently and the 6ft 7in Newcastle fan may prove to be one of this month’s most inspired buys, helping to ease Howe’s pain of missing his first-choice defensive targets, Lille’s Sven Botman and Sevilla’s Diego Carlos.
Yet if Wood provides essential attacking cover for injured Newcastle main striker Callum Wilson while weakening Burnley, Howe could still have reason to miss the two game-changing forwards, namely the exciting teenager of Reims Hugo Ekitike and Jesse Lingard of Manchester United. .
Trippier, a right-back still harboring England ambitions, already looks like a future Newcastle captain; which begs the question of the potential effect on the team’s ecosystem should Howe drop armband holder Lascelles to create room for Burn. Since Lascelles can be quite fiery, the manager may need to locate his inner diplomat.
At left-back, Targett should offer the kind of width and cross Howe craves. His presence also creates competition in an overstretched squad, but the manager’s challenge now is to ensure that a decent team on paper scores points on the pitch.
If not, he will surely lose his beauty contest with Watford’s Roy Hodgson, Burnley’s Sean Dyche, Norwich’s Dean Smith, Everton’s Frank Lampard et al and Benítez’s name could once again be mentioned as the solution to Newcastle’s woes.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the next few months could make or break Howe’s career.