Remember the Eddie Howe of a decade ago? Remember how pleasant he seemed, with his ruddy cheeks and blond hair, how he looked less like a football manager than a minor character from Downton Abbey? Remember the compelling interviews, the articulacy and understated charisma that seemed to emphasise his fundamental niceness?
And the poor love hated leaving Bournemouth. As a player, two games at Portsmouth were quite enough and he was soon back to his spiritual home. As a manager, well, Burnley, with its wild moors and dark energy, never seemed a natural fit. Best to stay amid the familiar beaches and boarding houses of Bournemouth, where Pep Guardiola could praise the quality of his football (which is to say the ease with which Manchester City could beat them) and nobody was too bothered by them conceding an average 66 goals per season – it was after all, a miracle they were in the Premier League at all. Bless him, good old Eddie, with his pretty, unthreatening football and his inability to organise a defence.
Since when the wheel turn has been dramatic. It’s not just that Howe is cheerily accepting employment from the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, with all the moral compromises that entails – in truth, by the end at Bournemouth, when the club was owned by the Russian-born petrochemicals billionaire Maxim Demin, the romantically impoverished days of passing buckets around to survive were long in the past. It’s that Howe is now managing a team that can defend, both with their structure and organisation and also in less admirable ways.
And it is probably worth saying, in this era of facile social-media argument, that it’s possible for two things to be true at once. Newcastle’s rise would not have happened without the Saudi money, which both allowed them to pay the necessary fees and wages and offered a credible dream: players could believe they were getting involved with a rising project that might end in Europe and title challenges, rather than just patching a hole to stave off relegation. And at the same time, Howe has done a very good job, both by incorporating the new signings and improving players who were already there.
Newcastle have the best defensive record in the Premier League. They have conceded only 11 times in 18 games. Only Neto has saved a higher proportion of shots than Nick Pope this season, but they lie fourth in the expected goals against chart. And they are getting better. They have let in only two goals in their last nine league games. Only Manchester City, Liverpool and Sheffield Wednesday have scored more than one against them this season.
Certain individuals stand out. Sven Botman may not have been the most eye-catching of their signings since the Saudi takeover, but the 22-year-old has been exceptional since arriving from Lille for £35m in the summer. His positional sense has made Fabian Schär look a far better player alongside him than he did last season or for Switzerland at the World Cup. In 18 appearances for the club, the FA Cup exit to Wednesday is his only defeat.
Kieran Trippier has probably been the most consistent right-back in the Premier League this season, contributing four assists and a goal as well as being in the top 25 for interceptions per game. The implausibly proportioned Dan Burn, all elbows and sharp angles with an unexpectedly deft touch, looked a stopgap when he was signed, but he has come to embody the spirit of the modern Newcastle.
But defending is never just about the defence and it has become increasingly apparent that Howe has come to see Bruno Guimarães flanked by Sean Longstaff and Joe Willock as his best midfield. That has meant Joelinton, having gone through his rebirth as a defensive midfielder, being restored to the forward line, but with a brief to keep on tackling; he is averaging a remarkable 4.1 regains per game.
Although Willock has contributed 2.4 regains per game, his great asset is the sort of positional defending that is hard to reflect in stats. Against Arsenal, it was noticeable how often Martin Ødegaard, effectively the playmaker, would receive the ball only for Willock to block the angle for the most natural pass. Ødegaard’s pass completion rate as a result dropped to 66.7% against a season average of 81.8%.
That is the positive side of things. Newcastle’s form does raise questions about Howe’s time at Bournemouth – were the players not good enough to defend like that? Has Howe only recently learned how to organise in that way? Is it the impact of his coaching staff or video analysts? Whatever the reason, Newcastle are defending exceptionally well.
But there is a shadow. And again, this is a case of two things being true. Newcastle are extremely well-organised but they are also adept at breaking up the game and running down the clock. Whether Mikel Arteta’s fury during Newcastle’s 0-0 draw at Arsenal was justified or wise can be debated, but he is not the only coach to have been frustrated by Newcastle’s approach. In Newcastle games this season, the ball has been in play for just 51 minutes 36 seconds, against a league average of 54:53. Only with Leeds is the ball in play less.
When Newcastle drew 0-0 at home to Leeds last month, Howe was clearly irritated by how “they were time wasting and doing everything they could to take time out of the game” (that was the second lowest ball-in-play time in any Newcastle game this season; only the 0-0 draw at Brighton had less, while the Arsenal game is seventh in the list). Which is another sign of Howe’s development: most of the best managers are tremendous hypocrites.
The cherubic figure of the peak Bournemouth years is gone and in its place is something much steelier, somebody far less concerned with the aesthetic of the game. Saudi Newcastle were unlikely ever to be as popular as the Kevin Keegan iteration and the gritty approach all but guarantees that. But while they are unlikely to win hearts, Howe’s game-smart battlers might just win silverware.