Has Newcastle’s inevitable rise begun?

Bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund and guided by manager Eddie Howe’s recalibrated methods, the Magpies are playing at a level which suggests that their ambition of joining Europe’s elite will be realized soon

Bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund and guided by manager Eddie Howe’s recalibrated methods, the Magpies are playing at a level which suggests that their ambition of joining Europe’s elite will be realized soon

There have been few transformations in club football history as swift and inevitable as Newcastle United’s. After 12 games last season, the Magpies were bottom of the Premier League standings. The only target was survival, staving off the calamity of relegation.

Fast forward to this season and Newcastle currently sits in fourth place — the final Champions League qualification position — having lost just once in 12 games.

In a thoroughly deserved 2-1 victory last weekend at Tottenham Hotspur, where Newcastle had suffered a 5-1 defeat last season, the side offered a sense of how far it has come.

The main reason for the turnaround is obvious: last year’s controversial Saudi Arabia-led takeover, with the Public Investment Fund buying the club in a deal worth just over £300 million. When a football team is bankrolled by the world’s richest ownership, there is — as Newcastle sporting director Dan Ashworth said — “no ceiling” on its potential.

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp referenced these words recently, saying that it was almost impossible to compete with clubs like Newcastle, which have no limits on what they can afford.

No limits

“There are three clubs in world football who can do what they want financially,” said Klopp, in an apparent reference to Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Newcastle, which are backed by oil-rich Gulf states in Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, respectively. “There is no ceiling for Newcastle. Congratulations, but other clubs have ceilings.”

Although Newcastle was expected to move up English football’s pecking order, few predicted it would happen this quickly. Newcastle’s owners have stated their ambition is to win the Premier League within a decade. But the club’s return to the Champions League could come sooner than expected, with the side showing it’s well and truly in the fight for a top-four finish.

A new era: The Magpies and their fans are eager to taste success after the controversial Saudi Arabia-led takeover. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

And while the financial clout of the Saudi sovereign wealth fund has helped add quality to the squad, with the likes of right-back Keiran Trippier, goalkeeper Nick Pope, centre-back Sven Botman, central midfielder Bruno Guimaraes and striker Alexander Isak arriving on Tyneside , the role of manager Eddie Howe must not be understated.

Howe, who replaced Steve Bruce last November, has turned Newcastle into one of the toughest nuts to crack in the Premier League, with only 10 goals entering his net in the opening 12 games — the best record in the division. That is not just down to better defenders, but also a work ethic that goes from top to bottom throughout the team. And it’s also not down to a reactive, men-behind-the-ball defensive strategy, but a proactive, physically intimidating style.

Under Howe, Newcastle is one of the most intense pressing sides in the Premier League. ‘Intensity is our identity,’ is the guiding principle of the manager’s methodology and his players have bought into it. They tirelessly hunt the opposition down to regain the ball. With strong, tall athletes all across the field, the Magpies are extremely difficult to play against.

“Newcastle are starting to upset some of the big boys — and they don’t like it,” former England and Newcastle centre-forward Alan Shearer told BBC Sport. “They know Newcastle are coming and they know they mean business. The big thing for me when I watch them is how fit they look when they press and how well organized they are.”

Howe 2.0

Howe deserves a lot of credit for his reinvention. He coached a brave, attacking style at Bournemouth, but the team was criticized for being naive and defensively suspect. After almost eight years with the Cherries, he took a 15-month break to reflect, learn and recalibrate.

Smart operator: Under manager Eddie Howe, Newcastle plays a proactive, physical style that troubles the best teams.

Smart operator: Under manager Eddie Howe, Newcastle plays a proactive, physical style that troubles the best teams. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

He went on an educational trip around Europe, notably observing coaching sessions of Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid. He met with Liverpool’s technical director and academy director, to learn more about recruitment and player development. He also analyzed tapes of his own sessions at Bournemouth to see what he could have done differently.

The results of these efforts are clearly visible: Howe is now a complete manager on the frontier of the game’s tactical evolution. While the 44-year-old has benefited from the purchase of top-level players, he also deserves praise for the upturn in performance he has inspired in players who were lagging in the relegation zone a year ago, including striker Callum Wilson and winger Miguel Almiron, who scored the goals against Spurs.

Howe’s Newcastle has matched up well against the traditional big clubs. Its only loss all season came at Liverpool — and that was after a stoppage-time goal. There have been draws against Manchester giants, City and United. The game against reigning champion City, in particular — a six-goal thriller in which Newcastle led 3-1 — was an indicator that the Magpies were a serious threat to the elite. The win over Spurs was confirmed.

“Physically, technically, tactically we performed at a very high level,” Howe said after the victory in North London. “I think we can beat anyone if we play like that.”

The signs are that Newcastle will only get stronger. Already backed by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund to the tune of £220 million in the transfer market, Howe will be given further resources in the January window to turbocharge the push for a Champions League spot.

‘Sportswashing’ criticism

But while the Magpies continue to shine on the pitch, the questions about the club’s new-found wealth and the owners’ human rights record won’t go away. Human rights organizations say that Saudi leaders engage in “sportswashing” — using sports for public-relations purposes. At the time of the buyout, the new owners offered assurances to the Premier League that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and in turn the state, would not have any say in the team.

But the club’s wearing of the kingdom’s green and white colors for the match against United and the decision to embark on another midseason trip to Saudi Arabia have attracted criticism.

These questions will persist, but Howe is focusing on the quest for a top-four finish. “There is a long way to go. I’m sure people will talk us up but I don’t want to put any external pressure on my players,” he said. “All we can do is give everything for success.”

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