Eddie Howe played his poker face when questioning Alexander Isak’s fitness on Friday. What he really had was an ace in his back pocket and a match-winning joker from the bench.
The Newcastle boss is not one for shuffling his pack – he has even been accused of blind loyalty to some – but by throwing his cards in the air and making an unprecedented five changes, he altered the course of his side’s stuttering campaign.
Isak, starting for the first time in a month, was electric, scoring the opener and injecting thrust into a forward line that has been going backwards in recent weeks.
But it was one of those axed, Miguel Almiron, who would prove Howe’s winning hand. In finding a ruthless streak, the head coach caused his top scorer to rediscover his own.
Almiron wears a permanent smile and would need a mask to look menacing. But his feet can terrify and Wolves were running scared when, with the score at 1-1 in the 79th minute, the outstanding Joe Willock, another of those restored to the team, found the Paraguayan in his favoured inside-right channel.
Newcastle beat Wolves 2-1 at St James’ Park as Miguel Almiron scored a winner off the bench
Almiron helped to secure a huge win for the hosts with an effort that deflected off Max Kilman
Eddie Howe celebrated an important win for his side that saw them move up to fifth place
We had seen this movie before, of course, and visiting boss Juan Lopetegui would have been peering through his fingertips as Almiron dropped a shoulder, cut onto his left boot and steered beyond Jose Sa for his 11th of the season.
It was the sort of goal he made look so routine before the turn of the year but, for him and his team-mates, nothing has come so easily of late.
They looked set for a sixth winless match after Wolves substitute Hwang Hee-chan cancelled Isak’s goal when scoring with his first touch on 70 minutes.
It was a comical concession, a mix-up between goalkeeper Nick Pope and defender Kieran Trippier seeing the latter slip and present Hee-chan with a tap-in. Not that the majority inside St James’ Park were laughing. Not with a match they had largely dominated headed for a draw, or perhaps worse.
Newcastle (4-3-3): Pope 6.5; Trippier 6.5, Schar 6.5, Botman 7, Burn 7; Longstaff 7, Guimaraes 7, Willock 8; Murphy 7 (Ritchie 85), Isak 8.5 (Wilson 68, 6), Saint-Maximin 7 (Almiron 68, 8)
Subs: Dubravka, Dummett, Lascelles, Targett, Manquillo, Anderson.
Scorers: Isak 26, Almiron 79
Manager: Eddie Howe 7.5
Wolves (4-2-3-1): Sa 6; Semedo 5.5, Dawson 6, Kilman 6, Jonny 5.5 (Ait-Nouri 69, 5.5); Lemina 6, Neves 6 (Hwang 69, 7); Podence 6 (Nunes 69, 6), Moutinho 6 (Collins 75, 5.5), Adama 5 (Neto 46, 6); Jimenez 6.5
Subs: Bentley, Gomes, Cunha.
Scorers: Hwang 70
Manager: Julen Lopetegui 6
Referee: A Madley 6
That would have been unjust, but also entirely in keeping with a luckless run that had seen them slide from third to sixth since Boxing Day. To that end, Howe welcomed the good fortune of a first-half turning point upon which he and Lopetegui, unsurprisingly, disagreed. It occurred with the game goalless in the 21st minute when Pope avoided a red card and the award of a penalty.
His last appearance here, when he was sent off against Liverpool, cost him a place in the Carabao Cup final. Having sailed through the season to that point, it is fair to say he has looked all at sea since. Not with regards his handling, his gloves remain as safe as ever. Rather, it is his feet which have the yips.
And Pope’s heavy touch left the home fans with another sinking feeling when Raul Jimenez stole before colliding with the keeper and crashing to ground. At least, referee Andy Madley saw it as a collision as opposed to anything more sinister. To everyone else, it looked like a spot-kick and probable dismissal.
But was Madley, knowing the ball had run out of play, waiting instead for VAR to review the incident rather than make a decision himself? If so, it saved Newcastle.
Alexander Isak earlier put Newcastle 1-0 up with a fine header from a Kieran Trippier cross
It was the £63m striker’s first league goal in almost two months and his fourth of the season
Hwang Hee-chan levelled for the visitors with his first touch after coming off the bench
It came after a defensive disaster for the hosts as Trippier slipped when trying to clear the ball
Sticking with the umpire’s call is perhaps the fairest way to describe the instruction of those at Stockley Park. Yes, there was contact, and Pope had been clumsy in trying to correct his error, but enough to overturn? You suspect not. The same applies in reverse – had Madley given the penalty, it almost certainly would have stood.
‘Yes, for me it was very clear – a penalty and maybe a red card,’ said Lopetegui. ‘For me, it was unfair.’
Howe countered: ‘I felt that Jimenez was on his way down before Nick touched him. That was my live impression.’
Such escapes have a habit of liberating the beneficiaries and from then until the break Newcastle produced their best league performance of 2023. They were in front on 26 minutes when Trippier delivered a free-kick from the right and Isak, stepping away from Jonny, flashed a header into the bottom corner.
Both sides then traded chances – Newcastle’s Bruno Guimaraes hit the bar and Daniel Podence the post at opposite ends – before Trippier’s fluffed clearance allowed Hee-chan to score within 60 seconds of his introduction.
It took Almiron slightly longer to make his impact – he had been on the pitch for 11 minutes – but it was ultimately far more telling. So, how did he respond to being dropped?
Isak was a menace all afternoon for the Wolves defence and his devastating pace was on show
After Isak’s goal, Newcastle brimmed with confidence and created a whole host of big chances
Bruno Guimaraes cracked a header against the bar as they threatened to overwhelm Wolves
‘He’s really attacked the situation,’ said Howe. ‘The team was in need and I had no doubt that Miggy would come on in the right frame of mind. I know the lad so well and he’s a team player, he’s not about himself. I had no doubt about how he would respond.’
And of Isak, the £60million striker Howe had said was not ready for 90 minutes?
‘It was great to play Alex from the start,’ he said. ‘I thought he was very impressive and showed what his game is all about with his pace and technique. The goal is a traditional Newcastle number nine finish. Hopefully, that’s the start of a really good spell for him.’
Forty-eight hours on from his fitness subterfuge, there was no hiding Howe’s feeling of delight, not to mention relief, this time.
The hosts seemed back to their best in the first half as they carved open Wolves with ease
Wolves were unfortunate not to win a penalty when Nick Pope appeared to trip Raul Jimenez
Daniel Podence also cracked one against the post in an end-to-end encounter at points