Eddie Howe and Newcastle facing immediate reality of Premier League relegation battle

The new manager is in the thick of a battle at the bottom with Tuesday night’s game against Norwich City already potentially pivotal

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Tuesday 30 November 2021 08:04
Eddie Howe at Newcastle: Key stats and record after manager announced

In the days since the 2-0 defeat to Arsenal, Eddie Howe has been attempting to shift Newcastle United’s approach to something much less defensive – but the big question is how far to go.

His side badly need a win against Norwich City to revitalise their season, but also know that another loss could prove fatal.

It is one of many balancing acts that this Newcastle team have to strike right now, between the medium term and the short term. Howe wants to introduce the side to a completely new approach, but knows he just doesn’t have the time such processes really require.

Most immediately, this home match against Norwich is a pivotal moment in their season.

It is all the more difficult because Dean Smith, himself recently installed at Carrow Road, knows exactly how to set up at St James’ Park. Norwich can afford to sit deep and look to pick Newcastle off.

It is just another little thing going against Newcastle, after the majority of the supporters got their way with one of the most controversial takeovers in the history of football.

That, aside from anything else, has added a greater edge to what could be another complicated multi-team relegation battle. It is one that is further fired by the prospect of Newcastle going down with the worst record since Derby County 2007-08, or maybe beyond.

It is no exaggeration to say many around the game want the club to go down. There has been an extra glee at taking points off them. Every opposition support has expressed it.

Tottenham fans sang “no noise from the Saudi boys” as they beat them 3-2 in that first game after the takeover. Arsenal supporters went for “you’re rich, but you’re f***ing s***”. Crystal Palace had that cutting banner that was, farcically, the subject of a police complaint.

The reasons for this are obvious. None of it is anything do with Newcastle United, a historic club, or the city itself.

It is all to do with the Saudi Arabian takeover, and what it represents. It seems the owners may be attempting to use the club as a sportswashing project for political reasons, and thereby sully the game. It is little wonder many feel revulsion at this, way beyond any feelings of “jealousy”.

Newcastle remain winless this season

Many Newcastle fans would fairly resist the “Saudi boys” characterisation, and it is true that the feelings within St James’ Park are much more complicated than social media would have you think, but there has equally been a perception that a sizeable number of fans have welcomed the takeover.

The response within the game itself is even more complicated.

Many players and coaches would willingly accept the right deal with Newcastle, so aren’t overly bothered by criticism of the new regime, seeing it as the reality of the modern game. Most managers would, of course, rather not be asked about it.

Many of their superiors are much more hawkish, with a series of Premier League club executives privately complaining. That is seen as rather cynical by others, especially given the unanswered question of how they would have responded if Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund tried to buy their club.

Either way, one well-placed source reflected the mood of many, when they described Newcastle’s potential relegation as “hilarious”.

The new owners add another layer of complication for Howe and his squad, another element of tension between the short term and medium term. The manager has to try and extract extra motivation from some players who know that their own futures at the club are in question. They know the new executives – some of whom are said to have been “dazzled” by the prospect of dealing in the transfer market – are only too willing to replace them.

While no player would ever not try for their team, such a situation cannot but create a subconscious barrier to full-blooded motivation. The players in Newcastle’s squad are not necessarily playing for their livelihoods.

It is one of a few factors that has left this team where they are in the league, but also why there is still the feeling they are nowhere near as bad as that infamous Derby relegation side. Most of the squad have already proved that, to be fair. They have stayed up comfortably in the past.

It was still true that Steve Bruce’s life as a top flight manager had run its course, with the uncertainty over the managerial situation only playing into so many uncertain performances.

It all makes this match against Norwich another big event, a potentially huge survival game well before most are attuned to the relegation battle.

Dean Smith has sparked a response from Norwich

Smith acknowledged on the eve of this game that many had already written Norwich off. That is no longer the case, due to both the affect the new manager has had on the team, and those atmosphere-altering wins over Brentford and, especially, home to Southampton. Norwich are suddenly unbeaten in three.

A fourth game without defeat, or a third win, would be hugely significant. It is also why time is against Newcastle. The statistic is by now well known: no club in their situation – six points and no wins after 13 games – has stayed up.

It’s just as well that the gap to safety is still rather narrow, with the six points between bottom place and 17th potentially bringing in a score of clubs right up to Crystal Palace in 11th.

Newcastle’s situation changes so much, not least because of what could achieve when they get to spend money.

The problem for the club, and Howe, is that they have much more immediate concerns.

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