Newcastle United have played 13 matches this season, and have only lost once – a record matched only by Arsenal and Manchester City. After defeating Aston Villa 4-0 on Saturday, they currently sit fourth in the Premier League. If they end in the top four, they would play Champions League football for the first time in 19 years.

It would be easy to say that the club’s resurgence is due to the new owners going on a spending spree, but they only brought in three players this offseason. Those are goalkeeper Nick Pope, defender Sven Botman, and forward Alexander Isak. And one of those, Isak, has hardly been available. What has changed is manager Eddie Howe has the personnel he wants, and he has them playing a style of football that is exciting yet sound defensively. The reason for this is a philosophy akin to total football, as almost every player has offensive and defensive responsibilities.

Revealed: Secret behind Newcastle’s success

At the back, Howe has been playing a back four of Dan Burn, Sven Botman, Fabian Schar, and Kieran Trippier. Burn isn’t a true left back, but Howe’s system gives him enough cover that he is not left on an island with a winger too often.

Botman has been an anchor in central defense, and while his style isn’t flashy, he is the one player who does not really get forward.

Schar has been very good defensively, and often will bring the ball forward, even deep into enemy territory.

Trippier is quick enough that he can constantly come forward to cross the ball into the box, yet never seems to be caught out of position.

Playing these four makes set pieces very difficult for the opposition, as United always have a height advantage in the box, especially with 6’7″ Burn being the tallest player in the league. With Trippier’s free kick ability and Schar’s ability to score from distance (his goal against Nottingham Forest from outside the box was a carbon copy of his goal of the month versus Burnley last December), any opposing manager has to consider any of the back four as a potential goal scoring threat.

Newcastle’s midfield maestros

In midfield, the key has been the two Brazilians, Joelinton and Bruno Guimaraes. It’s well-known that Joelinton was brought in as the record-setting transfer who struggled as a striker. But what Howe has done is allow Joelinton to do the things he does best – control the ball, out-work the opponent to create turnovers, and make his presence felt from box to box.

Guimaraes has been even better. The offense often runs through him. as his range of passing can get the club out of danger, start an attack or completely unlock a defense. Guimaraes has said he prefers to play farther forward, but Howe has him playing everywhere. The third man in midfield has been a rotation of Longstaff and Willock, and their role has been supportive, with no real defined position. As with the defenders, the players’ abilities, especially Guimaraes’, make Newcastle a threat going forward without sacrificing defensive cover.

Up front, the two wide players are constantly tracking back to help the fullbacks. Miguel Almiron can often be seen overlapping with Trippier deep in Newcastle territory, and the pace of Jacob Murphy or Willock allows them to assist Burn on the left. Even Allan Saint-Maximin has bought into the system and helps track back – which previous French flair wingers Ben Arfa and Robert refused to do. Central forward Callum Wilson does not have many defensive responsibilities, but he can occasionally be found at the edge of his own box in a dangerous situation.

All this makes Newcastle extremely difficult to play, something that Spurs forward Son Heung-min noted after Newcastle’s 2-1 victory last Sunday.

If you forget about the defenders, Schar will bring the ball up through the center a la David Luiz. The midfielders are so competent defensively, and the wingers have enough pace, that Newcastle can use the high press without fear of being too short at the back.

The speed and talent of the wingers also means that their opponents cannot go full out on attack without the fear of being hit on the counter-attack. Because of this they are able to gain a numerical advantage anywhere on the pitch, which has them creating the most thigh turnovers per game in the Premier League this season.

Since Jack Grealish’s disrespect of Almiron, the Paraguayan has turned his game into peak Mahrez, creating havoc whenever he is allowed to come inside from the right wing.

They have been doing this without one of their most talented players, Saint-Maximin, or their new record signing Isak. And even with all the attacking and pressing they do, they have the best defensive record in the league – only 10 goals allowed in 13 matches – without the dominance of possession enjoyed by Manchester City or Arsenal.

Are they title contenders? Probably not. But they just completed a week where they faced both Manchester United and Spurs on the road, and came away with four points, so there is no reason to think that they can’t find themselves in Europe in 2023 for the first time in a decade.