If the Premier League is split into mini-leagues throughout, then Newcastle United have quickly risen from the bottom to the top of theirs.
On Saturday 20 November 2021, a short 12 days after Eddie Howe was appointed to replace Steve Bruce as manager, a 3-3 draw with Brentford – coupled with Norwich beating Southampton at the same time – saw the Magpies sink to the foot of the table , winless after a dozen games.
Fast forward a little over three months and one much-needed transfer window, a seven-match unbeaten run has propelled Howe and his team up to the dizzy heights of 14th, suddenly four points clear of the bottom three and with the woefully out-of -form trio of Everton, Leeds and Brentford all providing a safety buffer between themselves and the drop zone.
There’s still a way to go, but form and confidence already seem to mean Newcastle are entirely unlikely to finish the season relegated and, from this point on, can meaningfully start to think about next season and beyond.
So, 14 league matches into Howe’s tenure, what has changed for them to leave their future prospects much brighter? ‘An influx of riches’ and ‘winning games’ are the obvious answers, but more specifically, how has one been used to lead to the other?
Those early encounters saw the Magpies lining up three at the back to start with before quickly reverting to a four, piling numbers in midfield and seeking to stop the rot at the back by pure volume of players while Howe tried to lay the groundwork of his changed on-and-off-the-ball approach.
It’s not that there has been a sea-change in basic numbers: Newcastle were averaging 4.4 shots on target per game in the first five – before the stat-skewing games against Liverpool and Man City – and managed 50 per cent or more of possession just twice in Howe’s first seven. It has been 4.7 on target per game in the most recent seven, with three times the Magpies having over half the ball in play.
But the quality of those chances is way up – 0.93xG average per game in the first seven, 1.66xG in the subsequent seven. The season average as a whole is 1.23, so they are trending upwards there – though it has been far from consistent, as facing 10-man Brentford and a dismal Everton padded the numbers notably.
Even so, there lies where Howe has mostly been focused – or at least able – to find improvement in Newcastle’s game: how to get the ball into dangerous areas and create better-quality goalscoring chances.
The Magpies’ build-up play has been noticeably improved from an eye-test perspective and the data backs that up; again splitting the manager’s first and latter seven league games, their progressive passes are up from 56.6 to 60.3 per game, while accurate passes into the final third are up from 25.1 to 29.3. That might seem a relatively small increase, but in percentage terms it’s very significant: almost 17% more final-third entries in recent matches – or put bluntly, close to a fifth more opportunities to get Allan Saint-Maximin and Co on the ball.
Defensively there’s a similar story.
The numbers of opposition passes allowed per defensive action (PPDA) in the 11 games prior to Howe’s appointment was 16, on average. In his first seven of him, it was still 16. In the most recent seven, it’s down to just 9.92, a direct result of what has been a massive increase in off-the-ball organisation, energy and cohesion in the side.
Such an increase in standing up to opposition build-up play in all areas of the pitch naturally has a direct impact on shot volume and quality Newcastle face: just 3.1 shots on target against them on average most recently, compared to 5.7 in Howe’s first seven (or 4.8 even without the Liverpool and Man City encounters). In real terms, that’s three clean sheets and only four granted in seven, versus 17 granted and just one shut-out at the start of his reign from him.
There’s little doubt the signings coming in have aided all that improvement, of course, although it isn’t there down to them: Chris Wood has been vital in terms of having an outlet, some hold-up play and a defensive option on set plays – as well as just having a body in attack with Callum Wilson out – but isn’t yet totally in tune with all the build-up play or as a scoring threat.
Kieran Trippier was a brilliant outlet and scored a crucial couple of goals, but he’s only played four times before succumbing to injury. And they are yet to implement their best signing at all, Bruno Guimaraes.
Arguably the biggest individual impacts have come from players already at the club and now rejuvenated: Joelinton as an all-purpose midfielder, Fraser back on the scene as a hard-running wide outlet and Saint-Maximin basically given free license to just collect the ball and run. He has played five of the last seven and across those attempted an astonishing 82 dribbles, managing 21 touches in the box (his season average is three per game) and taken 12 shots, eight on target.
So the season is saved, their top-flight status will be assured with another two or three wins and Howe will be considering what lies ahead in the year, and years, to come.
The last time Newcastle won a major trophy was 1955.
Since then, the likes of Luton, Oxford, Swindon, Ipswich and Wigan have all lifted silverware. It’s a source of embarrassment that they have been unable to end that drought, even if more than once it has been a very close call.
Far more investment and on-pitch progression is still needed before they can set that record to rights, but it has to be the ambition of the club and the financial muscle is certainly on tap to power those objectives.
Dan Ashworth is incoming as technical director of football. The tasklist he has to improve is extensive, from the academy to the training ground and all the recruitment in between.
That should provide an excellent addition both from a business and a sporting sense, given his experience and track record with West Brom, the FA and Brighton, and should smooth further appointments of proven persons in the club hierarchy.
These are only the earliest foundations of what the club wants to achieve on the pitch, but so far Eddie Howe has begun in largely exemplary fashion, though what we see between now and May could hint at how much longer the supporters will need to remain patient with ending their long wait for a competitive team, European football and silverware.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.