FootballPremier League

Ryan Baldi: “Out of the drop zone but far from out of the woods.”

February 17, 2022

Ever since the long-awaited takeover was rubber-stamped in October, Newcastle United had earmarked January as the month around which their season would pivot.

The Magpies had struggled desperately in the early part of the 2021-22 campaign, winless in their first 14 Premier League fixtures and mired deep in a relegation battle.

This run of poor form continued beyond the advent of the Saudi investment fund PIF’s purchase of the club from maligned previous owner Mike Ashley. But the new year held fresh hope, as the North East side would be able flex their newfound riches to bolster their struggling ranks once the mid-season transfer window opened.

Flex they certainly did

With a league-high outlay in excess of £80m, in came England right-back Kieran Trippier from Atletico Madrid, Geordie-native defender Dan Burn from Brighton, full-back Matt Targett on loan from Aston Villa, experienced striker Chris Wood from Burnley and, for a club-record £40m, highly-sought-after Brazil international midfielder Bruno Guimaraes from Lyon.

So far, Newcastle appear to be getting their money’s worth. Eddie Howe’s side are undefeated in their last five Premier League fixtures – dating back to a 1-1 draw with Manchester United at St James’ Park on 27 December, before the new signings had even arrived – and are currently riding a three-game winning streak.

Even in a season that, ever since the takeover was completed, was always likely to be bisected by the January window, Newcastle’s instantaneous turnaround has caught observers by surprise with its rapidness.

There are multiple reasons behind their sudden uptick in form – which takes in victories over Leeds United, Everton and, most recently, Aston Villa. The influx of new, higher-calibre talent is one.

“The owners were very up-front and honest about it,” Guimaraes said of Newcastle’s ambition upon signing for the club. “They didn’t disguise that the main objective was remaining in the Premier League this season. But in the seasons coming, the objective is to be in the Champions League and to eventually win the Champions League. We’re going to be a big power in world football.”

Eddie Howe’s influence

Another key driver behind the recent turnaround is the growing influence of Howe, whose training-ground methods have begun to take hold and yield tangible results – in style and substance – on the pitch.

The former Bournemouth manager, who was appointed to succeed Steve Bruce in November, arrived with a reputation for producing eye-catching, possession-based football. His suitability for a relegation fight was questioned, owing to his having overseen the Cherries’ drop to the Championship in 2020 and a less-than-flattering defensive record at the Vitality Stadium.

Those defensive concerns lingered, with Newcastle under his watch conceding three goals in games against Brentford and Liverpool and four in fixtures with Leicester and Manchester City.

With his backline significantly bolstered last month, though, Howe’s side haven’t conceded more than a single goal in any match since the turn of the year.

More than meets the eye

And further up the field, the attractive play that marked out his Bournemouth best was on full display in a recent 3-1 demolition of Everton. Lining up his side in a 4-3-3 formation, Howe is working to prove his doubters wrong by demonstrating a malleability in his preferred approach, namely in that Newcastle have been victorious and creative of late despite having a far smaller share of possession than their opponents.

Against Leeds, Newcastle owned just 37 per cent of the ball; versus Everton, that figure was 39 per cent; and in the win over Villa, they again enjoyed just 37 per cent possession. Across these three fixtures combined, though, Newcastle outshot their opposition by 43 attempts to 37 and landed 15 shots on target to just seven.

Utilising his full-backs to progress the ball and conjure scoring opportunities is a key facet of Howe’s tactical plan, and to that end, Trippier – with whom the manager worked a decade ago at Burnley – has been vital.

Trippier’s instant impact

The 31-year-old right-back swapped the Champions League for a battle to avoid the Championship when he returned to England from La Liga in a deal initially costing Newcastle £12m. His arrival, just a week into the mid-season window, unquestionably opened the door for the rest of the Magpies’ additions, with the England international’s vast top-level experience and name value legitimising the newly rich North East side as a destination for those who followed.

On the pitch, his impact has been equally seismic. The set-piece specialist has scored free kicks in each of Newcastle’s last two games, while he leads the team in touches (75.5) and chances created (2.1) per 90 minutes since he signed. He has been hailed as a tremendous positive influence in the dressing room, too. Indeed, he was trusted to wear the captain’s arm band in Jamaal Lascelles’ absence in just his fifth game for the club.

Trippier’s instant success means that his upcoming enforced absence is all the more devastating to Newcastle survival hopes. Their win over Aston Villa saw them rise to 17th in the table, four points ahead of Norwich City in the final relegation place and with a game in hand over the Canaries. But that same victory also cost them their best player, as Trippier sustained a broken metatarsal that could sideline him for up to three crucial months.

Their sudden January squad upgrade means the 2021-22 campaign will be a tale of two seasons for Newcastle. But – out of the drop zone but far from out of the woods – work remains if they are to write a happy ending.