Anthony Gordon’s start to life at Newcastle was anything but smooth. This season, however, he’s arguably been their best player; so what’s changed?
Head down, Anthony Gordon trudged towards the touchline and aggressively slapped the hand of Matt Ritchie as he was replaced, his disappointment obvious. Having already come off the bench during the match, he was suffering the ignominy of being taken off again. Eddie Howe approached him, but what was presumably supposed to be an explanation on his part quickly escalated as Gordon tried to ignore him and then threw out an arm that almost caught his manager in the face.
Newcastle United were 2-1 up away to Brentford deep into second-half stoppage time on 8 April. The game was all but won and Gordon had been holding his ankle only a few minutes prior; Howe was seemingly doing what he felt was right in trying to protect a player who’d not had an easy transition to life at the club following a £45 million switch from Everton in January.
The following week, Howe confirmed he received an apology from Gordon, who “accepted he was overly emotional”, but the player’s behaviour at the time only threatened to make his difficult start at Newcastle even trickier.
He’d recently returned from nearly a month out with an ankle injury, and he reached the end of the season having tallied just four Premier League starts from his 16 appearances for Newcastle. It was hardly the ideal first few months considering his transfer fee raised more than a few eyebrows.
But the European Under-21 Championship provided Gordon with an opportunity to maintain (or reach) a high level of fitness when players might otherwise enjoy time off, and he excelled as England went on to win the tournament. For England Under-21s he essentially played as a central striker, with head coach Lee Carsley talking up his flexibility and broad skillset. He scored a couple of goals and recorded an assist before being named Player of the Tournament.
Gordon returned to Newcastle training after just a four-day break following that tournament. In the longer run, that might be seen as a potential cause of fatigue, and Newcastle fans have noted him looking a little tired in the past week. But it gave him a head-start in pre-season and he’s not looked back since, with talk of a senior England call-up just around the corner.
After all, while Newcastle were in the United States in July, Gordon opened up on his early struggles and pinpointed why he might not have looked like the player he was supposed to be. “It was difficult, I won’t lie,” he told reporters. “[Howe]’s tactical detail is so impressive, and there is so much of it compared to what I was used to before. He did warn me it would take a while [to understand], and the other players warned me too.”
He added: “I would actually use the word ‘unfit’ when I first came in. I hadn’t trained for a week or so. I just felt the previous games before the move, I didn’t feel up to speed at all. And I got injured soon after joining Newcastle. I never fully got going. The summer has put me in a really good place.”
Patience and time can obviously help to build familiarity with a tactical plan, but Gordon’s improved fitness after an extended pre-season made him better equipped physically to carry out those instructions as well, especially in this Newcastle team, and that’s arguably been his most notable gain.
Playing for Newcastle is physically demanding; Howe is renowned for his insistence on intense pressing. Only three teams have recorded more pressures than them this season (2,197) and Gordon (289) has the most in their squad, seeing him rank ninth overall in the Premier League. He’s averaging 35.5 pressures per 90 minutes, which is also a high for Newcastle this season (min. 400 minutes played) and an increase of 5.1 each game from 2022-23.
It’s worth saying that Gordon’s 30.4 pressures per 90 for Newcastle last season was still high and it wasn’t that he was being accused of not working hard enough, rather his greater effectiveness and purpose in the press in 2023-24 is being noticed by Newcastle fans, and for good reason.
Where his distance closed when pressing – simply the amount of ground he covered when applying pressure to opponents – last season was 244 metres per 90 minutes, that’s up to 313.7 metres in 2023-24 and is roughly 38 metres more than any of his teammates (min. 400 minutes played). Similarly, Gordon’s pressures leading to high turnovers on a per-90-minute basis are up from 1.3 to 3.5 this season, which is only bettered by 12 players in the division – two of those are teammates Alexander Isak (4.2) and Callum Wilson (4.3). As for pressures leading to turnovers anywhere on the pitch, Gordon (5.9) moves up to eighth.
Gordon is tall, quick, deceptively strong for someone so wiry and very tenacious in his work rate, making him the perfect player in many ways for Howe, who’s made no secret of how much he values the physical side of the game. And having improved considerably both in terms of pressing frequency and impact, Gordon’s now fitting in brilliantly, to the extent that many Newcastle fans believe he’s been their best player this season.
Of course, that’s not just down to his effectiveness on the defensive side of the game; Gordon has also enjoyed a strong start to the season with his attacking output.
First and foremost, with four Premier League goals he’s already matches his output for the whole of last season (at Newcastle and Everton), and as the chart below shows, Gordon is in good company with respect to his shots per goal ratio, with him roughly netting one in six on average.
Though it’s arguably his ability on the ball and running power that make him a particularly ideal fit for Newcastle, given only five Premier League teams have reached the final third with a greater proportion of their transition opportunities than them (28.7%) this season.
He’s clocked the highest speed (36.9km/h) of any Newcastle player in the Premier League this season, and his 240 off-the-ball runs is second only to Miguel Almirón – they’re the only players in the squad to break the 200 barrier in that metric. And then, when it comes to on-the-ball actions, Gordon’s average carry distance of 13.6 metres is the sixth longest among wingers and forwards, and his 17 carries per 90 is bettered by only four, highlighting a real proficiency for taking the game to the opponents. What’s more, this ability brings a tangible threat; eight of his carries have led to a shot, with only seven players registering more, and two have brought a goal – no one in the Premier League can better that record this term.
It’s not just a case of him taking up possession, getting his head down and running for the flank. As the graphic above shows, five of his nine open-play chances created have come from passes he’s played within the width of the penalty area (excluding the two cut-backs from the left); he has the ability to come inside or take his man on the outside because he’s strong with both feet, and it’s this flexibility that England U21s boss Carsley saw as a real strength in the summer.
But it’s also fair to say Gordon’s development at Newcastle this season hasn’t been hurt by having a more structured role. Now, his winning goal – controversial though it was – against Arsenal at the weekend came with him effectively playing as a striker, but in 2023-24 he has mostly been used from the left, whereas last term he was also deployed on the right on occasion. He’s also seeing more of the ball in deeper areas, further evidence of his improved defensive work rate.
Clearly, though, Gordon just needed time; time to get to grips with Howe’s demands and maximise his talents in an environment where the team’s collective strength and unity is of paramount importance.
“We’ve had success this year based on that one principle – the team is the most important thing,” Howe said in April when asked about Gordon’s petulant reaction to being substituted. “Of course, we want individuals within the team to excel and have great seasons and a number of players have, but never at the expense of the team. That has to be at the forefront of the players’ minds.”
Gordon’s character came into question then, but there’s little doubt his attitude and drive in pre-season has been key in turning things around for him at St. James’ Park. Now, he’s thriving, and his head is up.
Anthony Gordon’s scored 73.6 out of 100 in the Opta Player Ratings so far this season, with his game score of 87.2 in his last appearance versus Arsenal – in which he scored the only goal of the game – his fourth highest score of 2023-24 in the Premier League.
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