What’s wrong with Newcastle United? Part one: New midfield and intensity issues

Can the real Newcastle United please stand up?

Four games into the 2023-24 season, and Eddie Howe’s side have shown four different faces.

The opening day’s 5-1 win over Aston Villa was a reprisal of last season only more so, ferocious, intense and clinical.

But against Manchester City they were out-thought. Against Liverpool they were outfought. Against Brighton, in one of Newcastle’s poorest performances under Howe, it was both.

For the first time since escaping the relegation zone in February 2022, Howe has major problems to solve. Yes, there was a slump in form last year around the time of the Carabao Cup final — but then, Newcastle United were still in the league’s top six. Four games into the 2023-24 season, they are 14th.

Already, some Newcastle supporters are feeling a familiar feeling swirl — the slow leaking away of optimism.

Then again, is this an overreaction? Newcastle have had the toughest start of any Premier League side. They have taken only one point fewer from the equivalent fixtures of last season (four points in 2022-23, three points in 2023-24).

This week The Athletic is analysing the key questions about Newcastle’s slow start to the season, trying to separate fact from fiction.

This article will focus on whether the midfield are gelling and whether intensity levels have dropped off — while part two, out later this week, will look at the transfer market, Nick Pope’s form, and Howe himself.

Sandro Tonali and Newcastle’s new midfield

Some housekeeping first. The season is just four games old — and as The Athletic’s Ahmed Walid explained two weeks ago, the sample size is simply not large enough to draw firm conclusions.

Newcastle’s situation is further muddied by the calibre of their opposition — in Aston Villa, Manchester City, Liverpool, and Brighton, they have arguably faced four of the league’s best seven sides. It means the statistical numbers will be lower than last season’s averages — that is to be expected — but they can still help illustrate the eye-test.

The midfield is the natural place to start. Sandro Tonali was the flagship arrival of Newcastle’s transfer window, but he was brought in as a hybrid midfielder, rather than the specialist No 6 which Newcastle had previously earmarked.

Howe wanted a more fluid midfield which would help free Bruno Guimaraes to take up more advanced positions — in theory, this meant allowing Joelinton to continue swapping places with the left winger, while Guimaraes and Tonali rotate between the No 6 and No 8 roles.

For all the talk of tactical advancement, it is handy to think of it in terms of the pulley system which existed in the 4-4-2 systems of the 1980s and 1990s — one central midfielder pushes as the other sits. So how has that looked in practice?

The chart above shows the average touch location of each midfielder — and looks as might be expected, with Joelinton slightly ahead of the other two as he rotates with Gordon, with Bruno and Tonali more interchangeable as the deepest-lying midfielder.

But this chart does not show the whole story — splitting it by game reveals some of the reasons behind Newcastle’s midfield struggles.

The passing network from the 5-1 win over Villa, could practically serve as Howe’s coaching CV.

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Tonali hit the ground running, scoring after just six minutes, but equally valuable was his passing, with his dark green dot demonstrating the high value of his link-up play. As well as scoring, he was involved in moves for three other goals.

Team-wide, this is a balanced display — but the midfield was pulled apart in other games.

This was always to be expected against Manchester City, with all likelihood the world’s best side. Their innovative attacking shape (moving defender Manuel Akanji into midfield to ensure they always had an extra man) meant that Newcastle’s midfield were swarmed with runners.

newc city network

The most striking thing is how deep Tonali was in possession — to an extent, this was deliberate, but it was also forced by Pep Guardiola’s tactics.

Over the summer, The Athletic discussed how Milan liked to drop Tonali deep and wide to pick up the ball, before playing raking cross-field balls to the opposite wing. Here’s an example from the Champions League semi-final.

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Here is an example of the same ball against City, sprayed out to Gordon. But the difference is how Tonali reached that point.

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Guardiola asked Manchester City to defend with a back five, using Jack Grealish as an auxiliary wing-back. This is not as defensive as it might sound — with Trippier pushing forward, but tightly marked by Grealish, any turnover would leave acres of space in behind.

Here is a typical passage of play — note how similar the midfield looks to the graphic above. Receiving the ball from Guimaraes, Tonali finds Trippier running back towards him, with Grealish glued to his back.

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He drifts into the right-back space (he effectively had to cover Trippier’s space for long spells of the match to ensure Newcastle retained an attacking outlet through their captain), but as he receives the return ball, Grealish sprints forward, cutting off Tonali’s passing options.

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The only safe choice is to play it back to Schar.

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When Tonali receives the ball back again, City’s press is so good that he is forced into playing the long ball to Gordon. It is a well-played pass, but Kyle Walker is there to cover.

This pattern continued for most of the first half — Tonali moving deep to cover Trippier’s space, but City’s press denying him good passing options. Occasionally, it led to mistakes.

Here, he comes deep to receive the ball from Schar…

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… and with Joelinton and Trippier marked, elects to play a risky ball forward to Miguel Almiron rather than the safe return ball. Josko Gvardiol intercepts and counters.

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Against Liverpool, after a promising start, the issue was a lack of progressive passing. Holding onto a 1-0 lead, Newcastle stopped playing and opted to protect a lead — Howe said afterwards that he was disappointed with his side in possession.

Look at how lateral Newcastle are — with Tonali also failing to achieve a high passing value.

newc liverpool network

A recurring theme in matches so far has been the isolation of Alexander Isak, demonstrated most clearly against Liverpool. So far this season, Newcastle rank 13th in the Premier League for passes into the penalty area with 29, just ahead of Everton, who have scored twice all season.

Against Brighton, a reaction was warranted — it just went too far the other way. Tonali played much further forward — this was a deliberate move. Look here, in just the third minute of the match, where the Italian forms part of the forward line, with Almiron in the midfield three.

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Why? On the south coast, it appeared as if Howe asked Guimaraes and Tonali to stop rotating — and instead asked Tonali to rotate with Almiron, just as Joelinton swaps with Gordon on the left, allowing Guimaraes to act as the tempo and, the hope went, guaranteeing verticality. No more lateral play after Liverpool.

Here’s an example of how it worked. Tonali starts here leading the press from the right wing…

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…before dropping back into the midfield three and allowing Almiron back forward.

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Tonali’s average positioning was actually higher than the Paraguayan’s — the examples above show that it was by design.

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There were two issues here. Though Tonali got forward, he subsequently failed to link up with teammates well — aside from a good cut-back early on to create a chance for Isak, attacks tended to end with him in advanced areas.

Secondly, with Tonali getting used to this role, he was arguably overenthusiastic — Howe would not have expected to see him this far forward. It left Newcastle extremely open, especially in transition. Brighton, with their exceptional passing from defence, are one team who will particularly exploit this.

Look at the separation between Guimaraes and Tonali — this was a gap Brighton played through repeatedly.

Newcastle’s midfield struggles are not solely down to Tonali’s adaptations. His error for the first goal (failing to clear effectively from Pope’s save) was a mistake in execution rather than tactical discipline, while the second two came from midfield mistakes when he was off the pitch.

Guimaraes and Joelinton are not at their best either. The sample size is small, but it is still illustrative — last season, the Brazilian pair were near the top of the league for pass completion percentage under pressure. So far this campaign, all three of Newcastle’s midfielders are in the bottom half of the league for pass completion percentage in the opposition half. Of 136 eligible midfielders, Guimaraes is 69th, Joelinton is 71st, and Tonali is 100th.

Effectively, Tonali has been asked to play different roles in each of his matches so far. Some of this is by design — after all, Howe signed him with the aim of increasing the midfield’s fluidity — but also due to the opposition.

Tactically, this explains some of the issues in execution — a new midfielder, in a new role, against four of the league’s top sides. There have been plenty of positives to his start on Tyneside. As he gets used to expectations, the floor of his game will increase.

But with no chance to settle against elite midfields, Newcastle have needed their own unit to be on top of their game to assimilate the new recruit. They have not been, and Newcastle have subsequently been punished. The question is why.

Have Newcastle lost their intensity?

Since Howe took over, he has publicly stated that he wants Newcastle’s identity to be their intensity. First game aside, this season their identity has been hesitancy.

To an extent, this was understandable against Manchester City. The sheer number of attacking runners means that Newcastle could not be gung-ho — and a 1-0 loss, in which Newcastle had late chances, was not ultimately a bad performance.

The week after against Liverpool was. Their intensity disappeared after Virgil van Dijk’s red card — and matters were even worse against Brighton.

Last season, Newcastle were near the top of the league for passes per defensive action (PPDA), which shows the aggression of a team’s press — a lower number means a side is challenging for the ball more. They were fourth in 2022-23, beyond only Chelsea, Brighton, and Liverpool, with the opposition averaging 10.4 passes before Newcastle attempted to regain possession.

This season, Newcastle are 13th in the league, with an average of 14.4. Some caveats — as well as the small sample size, teams will generally always press less against possession-dominant teams such as Manchester City and Brighton, to do otherwise is unsustainable.

That means it is impossible to reach a conclusive answer to whether Newcastle’s identity is changing (we are less than a week clear from August, after all), but examples show concerning signs.

Here, Newcastle have set up high and aggressively to pressure Brighton’s goalkick — something they did to great success in the reverse fixture last season. The issue is not the conception here, but the intensity and execution.

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With Tonali and Joelinton alongside Isak, Gordon and Almiron are extremely wide. Bruno sits behind the central three midfielders, slightly out of shot, leaving a huge gap between him and the centre-backs.

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Brighton’s new goalkeeper Bart Verbruggen chips the ball into that space — where there is just Joao Pedro up against Newcastle’s central defenders. However, he beats Schar to win the flick-on…

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… and Ferguson nips in front of Burn to suddenly have empty space in front of him, Newcastle’s full-backs scrambling infield to cover.

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Brighton suddenly have a massive overload, from winning just two marginal challenges. Newcastle are fortunate Joao Pedro shoots over.

Burn and Schar were also criticised for sitting on their heels for Brighton’s second goal — but the problem actually began far earlier.

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Brighton’s pivot Billy Gilmour picks up the ball in acres of space, but with Guimaraes slow to react, the Scotland international is able to find Ferguson through the lines, bypassing Newcastle’s entire midfield trio.

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There is now a major problem. With Kaoru Mitoma and Pascal Gross making clever out to in runs, neither Dan Burn or Schar can step up to pressure Ferguson, with the 18-year-old having already shown he is capable of slipping a through ball into them.

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Faced with this, they ultimately take the best option, betting that Ferguson will not score from 30 yards — the problem is that he does. Arguably, Elliot Anderson could have done better here as well — he is jogging when Ferguson first picks up the ball, only sprinting late on when he realises the danger, but is too late to prevent the shot. A little intensity goes a long way.

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One final example as Ferguson completes his hat-trick. Again, Gilmour is on the ball with Newcastle’s midfield attempting to box him in. As mentioned earlier, pressing is not the answer every time — but the alternative is to close down the available passing lanes. As a collective, they totally fail.

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Gilmour has at least five options open to him and makes sliding the ball into Mitoma look easier than buttering toast. Gordon eventually provides some pressure, but as the ball finds its way to Ferguson, Schar’s attempt to block the shot is as non-committal as the earlier defending.

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The performance could be blamed on some psychological factors — the circumstances of the loss to Liverpool the previous week, a degree of underestimating Brighton after their comfortable win last season, and their hosts’ loss to West Ham United the week before.

But with both games against Manchester City and Liverpool lacking the usual intensity, to what extent has this become a pattern? Sometimes, teams need a thrashing to have a mini-reset and improve. It worked last season after the 3-0 defeat to Aston Villa, Newcastle responding with three successive wins.

The good news is that there have been signs this midfield works, such as the Villa win or the first half against Liverpool. It is not true to say that Newcastle’s intensity has disappeared. It has been present in patches — but last year it was painted all over them.

This is a team struggling to adapt to their new personnel, their new tactics, their new reality. The start of the season was meant to be an acid test of whether they were contenders. They may have failed that early test — but there are plenty of barriers they can still surpass.

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