Every summer offers the opportunity for a football club to reset and Eddie Howe is expecting plenty in the Premier League to be resetting their sights on his team.
After Newcastle United’s success last season — the Carabao Cup final, fourth in the division, a return to the Champions League — the great disrupters become part of the establishment. “We have a target on our backs now,” he said.
It is not as if Howe has wallowed in the easy life since he was named head coach in November 2021, when Newcastle had taken root in the relegation positions, but he expects a more taxing challenge this time. “Yeah, I do,” he told The Athletic, “because we’re coming from a place where we’re more well-known in terms of our strengths, so we have to be better in every area. The expectations have risen around us.”
Constrained by financial regulations, Newcastle have brought in two senior players in Sandro Tonali and Harvey Barnes, with a third on the way in the shape of Tino Livramento, who underwent a medical on Tyneside on Saturday. They have sold Allan Saint-Maximin, their maverick forward, to balance the books and having far exceeded their goals, the question is whether they can get bigger and better again while being exposed to the demands of another competition.
Season one: avoiding relegation. Season two: with goodwill rampant, anything other than a struggle was a bonus. But in season three, what would success look like?
It does not feel like a straightforward question. Competing at the top of the table, contesting finals, playing in Europe; all these things are precisely what this version of Newcastle are all about, it’s just they have got there much sooner than they had even hoped.
“It’s very difficult to give you a clear answer on that,” Howe said. “It’s always dependent on loads of different factors that sometimes you don’t have control of. I sat here last year and said improvement in the team, rather than looking at league positions and the obvious things like trophies, because you can never guarantee that in my shoes.
“So it’s 100 per cent effort in every game, it’s a commitment to try and win, it’s looking for improvement in every area of the team, whether it’s in or out of possession and then hopefully if you get those improvements, you can get the results you want.”
So how ready are Newcastle for 2023-24? As well as accompanying Howe and his first-team squad on their three-game tour of the United States, The Athletic attended their final pre-season fixtures at home to Fiorentina and Villarreal over the weekend.
Drawing firm conclusions is always fraught — and the team’s start to the season is tough — but Howe believes there are “promising signs” ahead of Saturday’s opening fixture against visitors Aston Villa.
The pre-season stars
Elliot Anderson, Anthony Gordon and Lewis Miley have arguably been the most consistent performers this summer (although Barnes made a spirited late run against Villarreal for inclusion), with Miley and Anderson definite plus points for Howe.
Gordon’s prominence is less unexpected given the high-profile nature of his £45million (now $57m) arrival from Everton in January but, having struggled to impose himself last season, the winger looks transformed following his key role in England’s victory at the European Under-21 Championship final a month ago.
“I see a player with confidence, with huge ability, huge talent,” Howe said of Gordon after Saturday’s 2-0 win over Fiorentina. “I always think there’s more to come from him as well, so that’s a great thing from my perspective… We’re seeing a big improvement in his general performances. He’s in a good place.”
Anderson, a youngster feted as “the Geordie Maradona” by supporters, looks ready to start matches. In terms of natural ability, the midfielder has it all; he has always been able to carry the ball past opponents but is now muscular and more effective with it. He came back for pre-season fitter than any other Newcastle player and happy to acknowledge that, at the age of 20, this “is a huge season for me. I am trying to get on the pitch and trying to have more of an impact. I know it could go two ways.”
“He is pushing,” said Howe. “I want every player in the squad to think they can play and then deliver when the pressure is on. He’s done that so far, but he’s got huge competition in the area he’s playing in, whether that’s midfield or wide. We’ve got some top players in there.”
Few would have anticipated that Miley would already be one of those.
At 17, he is tall, graceful and has been ridiculously composed and comfortable in possession against some high-calibre sides this summer. He can be forgiven for showing some signs of fatigue against Fiorentina. “I took him off to protect him,” Howe said, “and that’s where I’ve got to be with him. These are important years for him – we’ve got to push him and protect him and make sure we nurture his talent.”
But, wow, what a talent.
The Italian job and Howe’s style
It has been a quiet sort of introduction for Tonali, Newcastle’s big signing of the summer. Against Villa and Chelsea in the United States, there was a sense of someone playing within himself, feeling out his new team-mates and getting to grips with Howe’s tactical requirements, but there was greater involvement on Saturday. He is constantly moving, dropping deep when necessary and always seeking space. There is a buzzy simplicity to what he does.
“He’s a quality player and we are really happy to have him,” said Sven Botman, the centre-half. “You can see he’s like the base of the midfield and we’re looking forward to seeing what he can bring us, but you can already see he’s really good on the ball. He still has to adapt, because he’s come from a different country, a different competition, but he is doing that really quickly and the team is helping him. He’s becoming more open with us now.”
“The Premier League is different,” Howe said. “Sandro would have found that in the games he played in America where there was a step up – just the speed, sharpness, where opponents place themselves. We have to be solid defensively if we are to have success and out of possession it was a step up on his recent performances.
“He’s a combiner. He’s going to need relationships to show his best qualities. In time. those will grow and we will see the player I know he is going to be.”
Does that mean the 23-year-old Italy international is likely to start against Villa? Howe was very deliberate in the way he integrated Bruno Guimaraes into his team last year, albeit the Brazilian was signed mid-season during the January transfer window. Alexander Isak then arrived in the summer and was introduced slowly, while Gordon struggled during his early months, not quite au fait with his place in the side or what Howe was asking of him.
What is it about his methods that makes it like this? “It’s something I’ve had to think about and consider over many years,” said Howe. “When you recruit players, you hope they can have an instant impact from the day they walk through the door but actually in my experience there have been very few who have done that, even though they’ve been unbelievably talented or a higher level of player to what we’ve previously had. Sometimes it takes them time to show that.
“I think it’s because we work in quite a complex way. It’s not a simple system just to pick up and we try and make the team have a rhythm and build relationships between the players in the team; so when you might come in, you might be an outstanding player but you’ve got to understand how the team works. Sometimes that can take three months, sometimes six. The odd player can get it right straight away. It’s a great thing when that happens.”
Could Barnes, signed from relegated Leicester, be one of those players? “I hope so,” Howe said. “It’s difficult to predict, but his role in the team on that left-hand side is maybe slightly simpler than other positions. You hope when you sign someone their attributes fit what you want, that you’re not asking them to do anything they’re not comfortable doing.
“You could see Harvey looked good in the team, he looked comfortable in his role. That’s Harvey in a nutshell; he’s quick, he’s positive, he scores goals.”
Where does all this leave Newcastle’s first-choice XI for Villa? With Sean Longstaff returning against Villarreal after a minor groin injury and Barnes scoring twice in the second half, Howe has some big decisions to make.
Does he go with Tonali, his £60million man? Does Anderson force his way in? How could he possibly leave out Joelinton, the team’s rock, and another goalscorer in the 4-0 defeat of Villarreal?
Against Chelsea in Atlanta on July 26 and then Fiorentina, Howe picked the same front three of Miguel Almiron, Isak and Gordon. Was that an indication of his thinking ahead of the Villa game? He laughed. “No, not at all. There’s no real clues, because I haven’t firmed the decision in my head yet,” he said. “That’s why I’m laughing; I want to give every player the opportunity to get themselves into that starting line-up. I’m going to clear my mind. It’ll be early in the week when I firm up my team.”
Was there a hint from Howe when he said about Longstaff, Newcastle’s running man, “he’s done very limited training in pre-season. He picked up a small niggle but when a niggle is enough to keep you out for two weeks it really can set you back”?
After a brief, haphazard experiment with three at the back against Villa in Philadelphia two weeks ago, it has been 4-3-3 all the way — a formation which brought Newcastle their success last season.
“It will be the same Newcastle (as last season), but I want an improvement and I want to tweak things continually to improve,” Howe said. “But it won’t be radically different, and I don’t think it can be. Why would we deviate too much from what’s worked? If you’re absolutely the same you’re effectively going backwards, so we’re always trying to innovate and bring new ideas to the team, in whatever phase of play that is.”
This, therefore, is a non-confident guess at Howe’s XI for this weekend: Nick Pope; Kieran Trippier, Fabian Schar, Botman, Dan Burn; Tonali, Guimaraes, Joelinton; Almiron, Isak, Gordon or Barnes.
“There are going to be people who aren’t even on the bench,” Howe said. “That’s the reality. There will always be disappointed players but that disappointment needs to be controlled. That was probably our biggest strength last year, where anyone we left out of the starting line-up or the squad conducted themselves in a superb way. That was key to our success. With a different squad, we’re going to need the same dynamic.”
Let us know who you would pick to face Villa in the comments below…
OK, OK. This wasn’t the Premier League, the Champions League, the FA Cup or the Carabao Cup. But Newcastle ended their seven-game pre-season programme unbeaten and got the chance to hoist the inaugural Sela Cup in front of their own supporters.
Apparently, winning things is quite nice.
— George Caulkin (@GeorgeCaulkin) August 6, 2023
Does it give Newcastle a taste of what might be? “On a very minor scale, yes,” Howe said, with a sheepish sort of grin. “We always want to win, regardless of the competition. It’s nice to lift a trophy, but it’s not one of the ones we really want, so we’ll continue that search.”
Will the pain of February’s Carabao Cup final, which they lost to Manchester United, motivate them this season? “I don’t know if it’s the pain of Wembley, it’s just that we’re determined to try and win something for the people of Newcastle,” Howe said. “I wouldn’t say we’re looking back at that game, but ultimately that will drive us forward.
“I’ve been doing it since I became a manager. You dream of winning things, you dream of lifting silverware. I want the players to feel the same way.”
As Howe said, the “acid test” will be Villa on Saturday, but it has been a decent pre-season all told. “We needed these games and these weeks of training,” he said. “I was aware from week one we weren’t quite where we needed to be but we’ve got better. We need a bit more; more training, a bit more sharpness in our game, and I think we’ll be there. I think we’re ready.”
Or as ready as you can be with targets on your backs.
(Top photo: Owen Humphreys/PA Images via Getty Images)