Dark arts and intensity: why Howe’s Newcastle are so hard to score against | Newcastle United

Mastery of the dark arts

Eddie Howe blushed slightly at a recent suggestion he was morphing into the “new Diego Simeone”. During a sabbatical after leaving his previous job at Bournemouth, Howe shadowed Atlético Madrid’s streetwise Argentinian manager and returned no longer quite the arch purist of old. The club captain, Jamaal Lascelles, despite spending most of this season on the bench has collected two bookings for obstructing opponents as they attempted to take late, potentially gamechanging, throw-ins.

Similarly, during a recent win over Fulham, Howe’s assistant Jason Tindall passed a message to Nick Pope and a couple of minutes later the England goalkeeper collapsed unchallenged, nursing an apparent injury. As he received “treatment”, play was halted, enabling Howe to issue fresh tactical instruction, Bruno Guimarães’s ankle to be strapped and Joelinton to allegedly eavesdrop on his fellow Portuguese speaker Marco Silva’s message to his Fulham players. Simeone might have regarded the substitute goalkeeper Martin Dubravka’s failure to warm up as naive but Howe, who liaises closely with the England and former Atlético Madrid right-back Kieran Trippier, his on-field lieutenant, is still learning about gamesmanship. No matter; a giant fans’ banner made its first appearance at St James’ Park last month emblazoned with Howe’s new mantra: “We’re not here to be popular; we’re here to compete.”

Nick Pope receives medical treatment during Newcastle’s win over Fulham after collapsing unchallenged.
Nick Pope receives medical treatment during Newcastle’s win over Fulham after collapsing unchallenged. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

What about Howe’s tactics?

“Eddie knew he had to change after Bournemouth,” says the former Newcastle defender Steven Taylor, now managing Gulf United in Dubai. “And his Newcastle are horrible to play against. They’re the Premier League’s fittest team and their sheer aggressive intensity makes it very difficult for coaches to plan how to stop them.”

Part of that is possibly down to another of Howe’s thought-provoking sabbatical visits to Spain, this time to shadow Andoni Iraola, AKA the high priest of Iberian pressing, at Rayo Vallecano.

At Bournemouth Howe was a 4-4-2 man but he adheres to a 4-3-3 ideal for the high- and hard-pressing game which frequently sees the invariably front-foot Magpies win possession in the attacking third. Operating at an often ferocious tempo, the midfield pounces on opposition mistakes by swarming forward and creating attacking overloads. Although much of Newcastle’s passing and movement is high-calibre, they are also unafraid to mix things up by turning direct when circumstances demand. When Taylor first watched Howe take training he was slightly underwhelmed. “At first you think: ‘Bloody hell, this is simple,’” he said. “But then you notice the session’s extreme intensity. That intensity takes things to a different level.”

When breathers are required, Newcastle are so good at stalling tactics that a recent analysis of Premier League time-wasting, citing the number of minutes the ball is engaged during matches, showed that only Leeds have been involved in less “active play” than Howe’s side this season.

Leaving behind Benítez and Bruce blueprints

Under Benítez, Newcastle were a quintessential counterattacking side, playing 3-4-3 featuring a low block, and Bruce subsequently made them even more prone to dropping off opponents. “We have to defend deep and, hopefully, counterattack,” he lamented. “That’s the only way we can play.”

Admittedly the club’s transformative Saudi Arabian-led takeover in late 2021 enabled Howe to invest about £250m on players but he has also transformed several of the old guard including Fabian Schär, Joelinton, Sean Longstaff and Miguel Almirón almost beyond recognition.

Miguel Almirón
Miguel Almirón has been transformed almost beyond recognition since Eddie Howe took over at Newcastle. Photograph: Lee Smith/Action Images/Reuters

Howe’s mantra is: “Intensity is our identity.” That message is daubed across walls at the revamped training ground, where the transition to a back four has been assisted by the signing of not only the outstanding Pope (who recently kept 10 consecutive clean sheets) and Trippier but two fine left-footed defenders in the excellent Sven Botman and reliable 6ft 6in Dan Burn. Their strength has enabled the right-footed Switzerland centre-half Schär to make the most of his accurate distribution and intelligent vision.

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Connectivity is key

Howe, no stranger to context and nuance, is an excellent communicator with a knack of finding the right word for every occasion. He spends hours analysing opposition video clips but distils them into easily comprehensible team talks. “Footballers often stop listening after eight minutes tops,” says Taylor. “But Eddie Howe’s brilliant at saying everything important in five minutes and he’s so clever at making emotional connections with players.”

Joe Willock agrees. “He makes the game really simple and clear; you really understand what you have to do on the pitch,” says former Arsenal midfielder turned principal Newcastle midfield presser. “I’m also the fittest I’ve been.”

Joe Willock
Joe Willock says he is the fittest he has ever been. Photograph: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Although togetherness is nurtured by imaginative and concerted team-bonding exercises, the quietly firm but fair Howe treats everyone as individuals. “I’ve been able to confide in the gaffer and he’s helped me so much,” says Willock. “It makes such a difference when you can talk to a manager on a personal level.”

But ‘entertainers’ vision remains (just about) intact

Howe was hired on a manifesto to reprise Newcastle’s 1990s “Entertainers” era choreographed by Kevin Keegan, but pragmatism has since entered the equation and the Howe infamous for an inability to organise a defence at Bournemouth is nowhere to be found. “I’ve changed slightly – I’ve got new ideas and I’ve evolved,” says the 45-year-old proud of the way Guimarães, his extravagantly gifted Brazil playmaker, has flourished on Tyneside. “I’ve become a bit different but I’m still fundamentally the same manager with the same principles and beliefs. The template is still to entertain within the Kevin framework. We want our supporters to come to the game excited. So it’s about attacking and entertaining. But it’s also about winning.”

Significantly, Joelinton’s lodestar conversion from a £40m flop of a No 9 to a combative midfielder or wide forward has been key to numerous victories. It is easy to understand why Julian Nagelsmann, his former manager at Hoffenheim, described the physically imposing Brazilian as “a machine” – and why rival managers reference Newcastle’s collective size.

“They have real quality but they’re also a really big, strong, physical team with a lot of height,” says Silva. “They’re very dangerous at set pieces.”

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