Eddie Howe (and Jason Tindall) led Newcastle to a well-earned place in the Premier League’s top four last season. A team built on solid foundations was able to get over the line, but now people will be expecting even more. With European football back on Tyneside, it will be interesting to see what comes next for them. We have a look at five questions for Howe (and Tindall) with our Newcastle United 2023-24 preview.
Can They Balance Premier League and Champions League Responsibilities?
It must be an exciting time to be a Newcastle United fan. After securing a top-four finish in the Premier League for the first time since 2002-03 last season, the UEFA Champions League awaits.
Twenty years ago, Newcastle were knocked out at the third qualifying round stage on penalties by Partizan Belgrade. There will be no such heartache this time as they head straight into the group stage, and there will surely be an incredible atmosphere at St James’ Park when it welcomes back Champions League football.
However, with European football comes more games, and less time to prepare. Eddie Howe did a tremendous job taking Newcastle from fighting against relegation one season to finishing above the likes of Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea the next, but they had one particular advantage. With no European football, Newcastle could focus more on their league form, while others had other distractions for much of the season.
Howe could consider the League Cup run as good preparation, with Newcastle reaching the final last season against Manchester United. They were able to produce in midweek as well as at the weekend, though preparation for a trip to the Allianz Arena or Santiago Bernabéu might be trickier than it was heading to Prenton Park to face Tranmere Rovers or hosting Leicester City.
Something they will have to avoid repeating is their slow start from last season. Given how well the campaign ended, it’s easy to forget that an opening-day win over Nottingham Forest was followed by a six-games winless run in the Premier League (D5 L1). They recovered well, of course, but will want to accumulate as many points as possible before their Champions League campaign starts.
Howe used 30 players in all competitions last season, which compared to teams who competed in the Champions League was only three fewer than both Chelsea and Liverpool, the same amount as Tottenham and five fewer than Manchester City, who not only won the Champions League but also went all the way in the FA Cup. So, in terms of squad size, there are already positive signs.
Speaking to Sky Sports recently, Howe said: “There’s a lot of unknowns for us, but I think what we can do at this moment in time is focus on the Premier League. We’ve got a busy schedule of games before the Champions League even starts. Rather than looking too far ahead, let’s just look at our immediate targets. The Premier League’s hard enough without going off course.”
He’s not wrong.
Have They Flexed Their Financial Muscle Enough?
When Newcastle were taken over by a consortium led by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund in 2021, some people suggested the likes of Kylian Mbappé, Erling Haaland and Lionel Messi might soon be turning up in the famous black and white shirt. That hasn’t quite happened, though plenty of money has been invested.
You would have to say it has been invested wisely, with purchases such as Kieran Trippier, Sven Botman, Nick Pope, Bruno Guimarães and Alexander Isak all integral in taking the team up several levels in double-quick time.
With Champions League football secured, many believed the incredible wealth of the owners would be utilised further as they looked to prepare the team for the next step of its evolution, but as of writing, Newcastle have added just two players. Granted, the estimated transfer fees come in at just under a combined £100 million, but most would probably have anticipated more than just Sandro Tonali and Harvey Barnes coming through the door.
Both are interesting additions, though. Even if they haven’t spent silly money, being able to sign one of AC Milan’s star players feels like quite a power move, while Barnes could add a new dimension to their attacking play. The 25-year-old was the top scorer in the league for Leicester with 13 goals last season from 8.9 expected goals (xG) despite the club suffering relegation.
Southampton right-back Tino Livramento seems to be their next target, with recent reports suggesting a fee of up to £40m has been agreed. But with Trippier so vital last season, you’d assume Livramento will ultimately be back-up for now.
The transfer window is still open and as long as they can stay within Financial Fair Play rules, it would not be a surprise to see Newcastle make another big buy or two before September. The squad still looks strong, but if they are unable to finish in the top four again, you wonder if they’ll rue not taking more advantage of having Champions League football when it comes to the transfer market.
What Will Be the Best Midfield Combination?
The addition of Tonali is a particularly intriguing one, not least because it means Howe will have to change the make-up of his midfield, something he didn’t really do in 2022-23.
In the Premier League last season, four players who predominantly played in central midfield racked up at least 28 starts and 30 overall appearances. The only player outside of Joe Willock, Joelinton, Sean Longstaff and Guimarães to start for Howe in central midfield in the league was Elliot Anderson, who only did so three times.
Tonali will surely be a regular starter, while Guimarães’ position is unquestioned, so presumably Willock, Joelinton and Longstaff will be on rotation for the other role, while Anderson looks like he might be ready for a breakout season.
It is difficult to know which Tonali Newcastle will be getting, though. Two seasons ago he played a crucial role in Milan winning their first Serie A title in 11 years with five goals from midfield. Last season, he scored just twice, but produced seven assists, up from two the season before, while he also created more chances (62, up from 44).
Guimarães is a well-rounded midfielder, so really Tonali can be whatever he wants to be, he just needs to do it at a high level if he is to justify ousting one of Howe’s previous consistent options. With his experience in the Champions League, including reaching last season’s semi-finals, it could be that the Italian features more in Europe than in the Premier League once the group stage begins.
Willock boasted the best passing accuracy of Newcastle midfielders in the Premier League with 85.1%, while he also provided the joint-most goal involvements (nine – three goals, six assists) with Guimarães, and created twice as many big chances as anyone else (12).
Joelinton scored more goals than any of his fellow midfielders (six) and made the most interceptions (48), and while Longstaff didn’t lead any of the main metrics himself, he did still provide four assists, just one fewer than Guimarães, and of course was crucial in Newcastle’s League Cup semi-final win over Southampton, scoring twice in the vital second-leg win at St James’ Park.
Anderson looked impressive off the bench last season. The 20-year-old from Whitley Bay averaged just over two chances created per 90 (next highest being Willock with 1.4) and 2.5 tackles per 90, with only Guimarães averaging more (2.6). He has also played well in the pre-season tour of the United States and will be eager to get more chances next season.
Can They Stay Defensively Solid?
Newcastle were a very difficult team to score against last season. Only champions Manchester City could match their record of 33 goals against, while the next best defensive records in the division were jointly held by Arsenal and Manchester United, who both conceded 43.
While Pope’s performances between the sticks certainly helped, the defensive stability of the team was also key. Only Manchester City (33.1) had fewer xG against in the Premier League than their 40.1.
That substance was obvious, particularly when the consistency of their selection was even greater in defence than it was in midfield. Dan Burn, Fabian Schär, Botman and Trippier all started at least 35 league games, with latter starting all 38.
Newcastle only lost three of the 31 Premier League games in which Burn, Schär, Botman and Trippier all started together (W17 D11).
The only new defender linked with arriving has been Livramento. The former Chelsea man would presumably be brought in to help ease the load of Trippier, who turns 33 in September. There’s little doubt the ability to select the same back four in most games last season was a factor in their consistency, but will Howe be able to do the same with the extra games?
That solidity also comes from the hard work of the rest of the team, and as already mentioned, their strength in midfield will also be important in maintaining it, but they also must keep in mind that there will be more of a target on their backs now they’re no longer going under the radar, as they arguably did last season before their improvement had become apparent.
Newcastle kept eight clean sheets in nine games in all competitions immediately following the end of the World Cup, but after 24 January managed only two in their final 20 games. Howe will be hoping to rediscover the formula that laid the initial foundations for that top-four finish.
Isak, Wilson, or Both?
Newcastle weren’t just efficient at the back last season; their strikers showed their ruthlessness as well.
Alexander Isak arrived from Real Sociedad for a reported fee of £60m (€70m) and promptly scored two in his first three games, including a debut goal against Liverpool at Anfield. A thigh injury kept him out until January, but once he was fully fit, he went on a sensational run, scoring seven goals in seven games between mid-March and late April. The goals dried up after he moved over to the left as Howe tried to get Callum Wilson back into the team, but the Sweden international still put in some impressive performances.
It will be a difficult decision for Howe, especially given Wilson’s form last season. The former Bournemouth man scored 18 goals in the Premier League, the most by a Newcastle player since 2003-04 when Alan Shearer hit 22.
As you can see above, Wilson specialised in getting his goals centrally, with almost all of them coming from within the width of the posts.
He managed his 18 goals from 31 appearances, of which just 21 were starts. Only Erling Haaland (0.75) averaged a higher non-penalty xG value per 90 than Wilson (0.72) across the league.
Goals were not always flowing for Howe’s men, with three teams who finished below them scoring more than their 68, but they did find themselves scoring multiple goals often. Newcastle netted four or more goals in eight league games last season, as many times as they had done in their previous 10 top-flight campaigns combined.
One thing Howe will have to bear in mind is he has effectively replaced Allan Saint-Maximin with Barnes. The former – who left for Saudi Pro League side Al Ahli – provided five assists from 31 chances created (eight big chances) last season, while Barnes managed just one assist from 19 chances created (five big chances). Barnes did outscore Saint-Maximin 13-1, though.
Howe also has the option of playing Isak off the left with Wilson down the middle, as he did towards the end of last season, but whether it’s one, the other, or both, Newcastle fans can presumably look forward to celebrating many more goals from Isak and Wilson in 2023-24.
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