As Newcastle completely demolished a Leicester City side missing multiple first-team regulars in James Maddison and James Justin, the thought of Premier League contention became more plausible than it was merely possible.
Of course, at first glance, the idea seems way too hopeful and optimistic. It’s Newcastle we’re talking about here, the mid-table team that has not finished above tenth place in the Premier League since 2012. Yet, surprisingly, Newcastle look better than ever.
They’re creative and play very entertaining soccer. Led by the goalscoring prowess of Miguel Almiron and the creativity of Kieran Trippier and Bruno Guimaraes, they have put together one of the best offenses in the league. And, as their romp over Leicester showed, they can use it effectively.
But, what changed from the mediocre Newcastle team two years ago to the overachieving squad today? And do they have a chance to win it all for the first time in nearly a century?
Planting the seeds
To properly explain Newcastle’s excellence in 2022, turn the dial all the way back to 2018. The Toon was just months removed from a Championship title, and their biggest claim to fame was its success in the late 90s and early 2000s. After returning to the Premier League, Newcastle broke the bank by signing Almiron from Atlanta United for over $25 million, their most expensive capture since the days of Michael Owen.
At the time, Almiron was seen as a flop. The Paraguayan striker had just 12 goal contributions across 100 total Premier League appearances. Some pessimistic Newcastle fans figured that the promising talent would just be a way to make a quick profit, like the club did with Georginio Wijnaldum, Aleksandar Mitrovic, and Moussa Sissoko.
But the signing somehow sent Newcastle on an unforeseen spending spree in an attempt to bolster its squad and fend off relegation. After spending $63 million and ending up in 13th, Newcastle would spend over $77 million on now-important players like Joelinton and Allan Saint-Maximin. They, again, finished 13th that season.
After cutting costs and spending around $41 million on Callum Wilson and more, Newcastle finished 13th yet again. Not only frustrated with the increasingly-hostile fanbase, Mike Ashley faced pressure to step down as Newcastle’s owner.
A Newcastle takeover
Ashley’s resignation invited a Saudi-backed consortium to take control of Newcastle. It’s unknown why Saudi Arabia PM Mohammed bin Salman wanted to buy a football club, much less Newcastle.
Maybe it’s because Newcastle-upon-Tyne is arguably the most well-known town in the north of England and it’s a relatively significant city in the grand scheme of things. Maybe it’s a desire to compete with Qatar (PSG) and the UAE (City) in a strange sort of proxy war. Or maybe it’s just a strange way of getting honor and pride. Regardless, Saudi Arabia completed the financial takeover amid some controversy.
The first action? spend. Newcastle had its most expensive transfer window of all time in 2020, spending over $115 million in the winter transfer window alone. Their January haul included Guimaraes, Wood, Trippier and key defender Dan Burn.
It improved their Premier League standing from 19th place in 20 games played to 11th by the end of the season. If only the second half of the Premier League counted, Newcastle would finish 4th, ahead of Liverpool, United, and Chelsea. After spending even more money, $144 million, to be exact, on Sven Botman, Matt Targett, Nick Pope, and Alexander Isak. Now, Newcastle is second in the league.
The whole sequence of events; from winning the Championship to potentially challenging for the Premier League in just five years; feels like a fever dream to the Newcastle faithful. Yet, just like Newcastle’s chances of making it to European soccer for the first time in a decade, it is real.
It’s not just money
It’s easy to dismiss Newcastle’s success as just from money. Unsurprisingly, all signs point to it. Newcastle had a huge surge of success when the new owners pumped tons of cash into the club, allowing the team to make some big transfers. But the managerial signing of Eddie Howe is arguably what really set Newcastle into motion.
When Steve Bruce and the consortium parted ways, St. James Park was on fire; and not in a good way. The club was in 19th and tipped to suffer relegation when he left.
On the field, Newcastle offered nothing new despite its attempts to keep up with the rest of the league with its new signings. The attack was mundane and the defense was porous. Off the field, locker room tensions plagued Newcastle, and fans regularly criticized Bruce’s “negative football.”
We’ve played a certain way in the past to try to make sure we get the results we need. I’ve let them be comfortable. But, like I say, the gloves are off now. I’m going to do things the way I see fit. We’ll do it my way.Steve Bruce talks to the Guardian after a 1-0 loss to Sheffield United in 2021
A difference maker on the bench
The signing of Eddie Howe helped Newcastle gain some sort of consistency. Their 4-3-3 shape was robust and fluid, allowing them not only to defend firmly and frustrate opponents, but to also attack with pace.
Howe is a match made in heaven for a Newcastle team with lots of attacking depth and playmakers in the squad. His formation focuses on attacking brilliance and defensive flexibility, allowing the quality of the Newcastle stars to shine through.
Trippier and Joe Willock have provided dangerous crosses. Trippier also provided an added layer of playmaking along Bruno Guimaraes. Miguel Almiron and Callum Wilson give that vital finishing that contending teams need. The defense is equally as imposing as the offense.
Nick Pope, arguably the best keeper in the league at the moment, has the highest save percentage and the seventh-most saves. Trippier is a solid wall on defense, and so is Joelinton when he plays as a midfielder. Howe has put all of these players and qualities together, with drastic effects.
What to expect from Newcastle in the Premier League going forward
With new players and a new manager, Newcastle look like they can forge a deep run in the league. And they showed it in their recent win against mid-table team Leicester.
They were incisive, creative, solid; everything that a Premier League winner can be. And although dreams of winning the Premier League might be farfetched, they have the results to back it up. A 3-3 shootout with City, a 2-1 victory over Tottenham, and a 1-0 thriller against Chelsea all affirm Newcastle’s newfound rise to the top.
If they cannot find the points to get past first-place Arsenal, Newcastle still look like a favorite to make it to the top seven and qualify for European football. Although blaming the consortium and massive investment of money is easy to do, it disrespects the valiant efforts of a Newcastle side that has rebuilt itself both tactically and mentally. Look forward to a New Year’s Eve fixture against relegation candidates Leeds where Newcastle can definitely strut their stuff.
PHOTO: IMAGO / NurPhoto
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