AT the end of a managerial search as exhaustive as it was baffling at times, there is a new man in charge of Newcastle United, the familiar, still-boyish-looking face of Eddie Howe.
The former Bournemouth boss has been out of work over a year, and he showed his keenness to waste no time at Newcastle by arriving for his first day at the club before 7am, greeting fans at the training ground’s gates and putting on a session more intense than his new charges experienced under predecessor Steve Bruce.
The Newcastle job is by far the biggest of the 43-year-old’s career and the task before him is complicated, not least by the fact that the club’s long-in-the-making and controversial Saudi takeover has still somehow felt rushed.
That is evidenced in the scattershot managerial recruitment drive that eventually led to Howe’s appointment. Newcastle cycled through a number of candidates with seemingly little discretion nor any great gauge on whether their interest was reciprocated.
Names leaked and knockbacks came quickly. Lucien Favre, Paulo Fonseca, Roberto Martinez, Rafa Benitez and Brendan Rodgers were all reportedly sounded out and all returned Newcastle’s advances with short shrift.
Then came the botched approach for Unai Emery. The Spanish tactician, who won the Europa League three times with Sevilla and again last season with current club Villarreal, rose to the top of the Magpies’ managerial wish list in recent weeks. But the club’s all-too-public pursuit of the former Paris Saint-Germain and Arsenal boss drew the ire of Villarreal and, in the end, appeared to spook Emery to the point he decided to distance himself from a Premier League return.
A glance through the aforementioned list of managers also does little to convince observers that the new Newcastle regime have much of a plan for how to realise their heady ambitions of making the Magpies Premier League contenders and Champions League regulars.
There is a mix of Premier League experience and those whose success has come exclusively overseas, and there are widely differing ideologies. Benitez, for example, formerly of the St. James’ Park parish but now in charge of Everton, is a renowned pragmatist, a risk-averse tactical plotter adept at game-planning for opponents and building a base upon solid defensive foundations. In that regard, knockout-competition specialist and fellow Spaniard Emery is cut from similar cloth.
In the ambitiously targeted Rodgers, Martinez, Favre and the man who eventually landed the job, Howe, there is tactical nous to varying degrees but a shared belief in a team’s obligation to entertain through attack-minded play.
Newcastle’s approach to finding a director of football is shaping up in similar fashion. Ajax’s Marc Overmars was the name mooted in the first weeks of the new regime, but with the former Arsenal winger proving unattainable, it seems Michael Emenalo, ex-director of football at Chelsea, is the frontrunner.
So what do Newcastle want to be?
The short answer: successful. And if Howe is to achieve that, there are key issues he must address, both in what he will find at his new club and what he might ponder when looking inwardly.
"This is a wonderful opportunity, but there is also a lot of work ahead of us and I am eager to get onto the training ground to start working with the players,” Howe said upon the confirmation of his appointment this week.
Since the moment the Saudi takeover was complete, Newcastle fans have been giddy with excitement at the prospect of how the anticipated injection of transfer funds might see the club transformed back into a genuine force among English football’s elite.
In the short-term, with the transfer window closed, those grand plans are on ice. And even into the medium-term, spending regulations and the club’s current predicament down the lower end of the table mean the dreamed-of superstar names won’t be arriving in January – it’s unlikely an equivalent of a fur-coat-bedecked Faustino Asprilla rocking up from Parma amid a blizzard in 1996 will be found in the first month of the new year.
For now, Howe must work with what he’s got. Fortunately for him, that will mean getting the best out of some familiar faces: the former Bournemouth trio of Callum Wilson, Matt Richie and Ryan Fraser.
With 12 league goals to their name in 11 games this season, Newcastle have out-scored, among others, Tottenham, Wolves and Southampton. Still, an average of barely more than one goal per game will need to be improved upon if they are to quickly climb out of the relegation zone and up the table.
Further emboldening Wilson – Newcastle’s top scorer this term with four goals – at the point of attack is the obvious place for Howe to start. Improving service into the four-cap England striker is a must. Tricky and versatile winger Allan Saint-Maximin is the prized asset in this regard, and the Frenchman must be freed from any shackles that constricted him under the previous manager and placed in a role that, pardon the pun, maximises his skillset.
Getting Richie back to his best will also be key. The Scotland international, reimaged as a wing-back of late, has started all Newcastle’s Premier League games so far in 2021-22 and has just a single assist to show for his efforts.
At his Bournemouth pomp, Richie was a creative wide player with an eye for goal, once registering 12 goals and 15 assists in a single Championship season. And he has previously recorded eight assists in a Premier League campaign for Newcastle. If anyone has the key to unlock Richie once again, surely its Howe.
The same is true of Fraser, only to an even greater degree. The diminutive Scot has started only two Premier League games this season, with no goals or assists in 200 total minutes of action. Injuries and poor form have seen the once-prolific creator fail to meet expectations thus far since joining Newcastle in 2020, but he is still only 27 and just three years removed from a top-flight campaign in which he scored seven goals and provided 14 assists.
More alarming than Newcastle’s lack of offensive output is how porous they have been defensively this term. Despite a less-than-expansive style of play, they have shipped 24 goals – only rock-bottom Norwich have fared worse at the back.
In the time since his Dean Court denouement, Howe has been somewhat unfairly remembered as the man who took Bournemouth down. That tells but a small part of his storied history with the club. He is also the man who took them from seven points adrift at the bottom of the fourth tier all the way to the Premier League. And he got them there – and, for five years, kept them there on a comparatively modest budget – while playing attractive football that emphasised slick passing patterns.
But if Howe is to succeed at Newcastle, he must show that he has grown in the 15 months since his Bournemouth departure, that he has improved upon the two great blind spots of his management that contributed to the club’s relegation in 2020: a poor defensive record and a sketchy success rate with big-money signings.
The former will be crucial to his short-term impact at St. James’ Park. The latter will determine whether he can ultimately deliver on Newcastle’s lofty expectations.