There were 90 minutes on the board – if still 10 of stoppage-time to follow – when Matt Ritchie and Emil Krafth finally made their entrances. There was a time when Sean Dyche felt the manager least likely to turn to substitutes. Now it is Eddie Howe, and for a different reason: minus 11 players, he in effect does not have alternatives.
There was a time when Dyche marked winning promotion with four games to go by naming an unchanged team for the remaining matches. Now Howe has picked the same 10 outfield players against Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United and Everton in 12 days. Out of a possible 360 minutes – injury-time actually makes their workload bigger – Alexander Isak has played 351, Jamaal Lascelles 356, Miguel Almiron 357, Anthony Gordon and Lewis Miley 359. Kierian Trippier, Fabian Schar, Tino Livramento, Bruno Guimaraes and Joelinton have gone the distance.
As Newcastle lost 3-0 to Everton, their heaviest defeat of the season completed by a goal assisted by one of Dyche’s substitutes, in Nathan Patterson, and scored by another, in Beto, fatigue became a determining factor. Trippier, man of the match against Manchester United, assumed a prominence for a very different reason, sadly culpable for the first two goals. The overworked were overcome, a decisive Newcastle signing turning the game Everton’s way.
It may have been the worst night of Trippier’s Newcastle career. No blame was directed at him. “Kieran has been absolutely magnificent since he signed, the catalyst for a lot that happened,” Howe said. “Collectively we were off our best.”
Newcastle’s best necessitates sharpness. And that, in a season packed with major matches, that requires more players. Last year, without the demands of Europe – let alone a group where Borussia Dortmund, AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain offer no respite – 12 players featured in at least 30 Premier League matches; 10 of them started at least 28. A small core sufficed. Now they have a still smaller group, a more packed fixture list, an enforced policy that seems the opposite of what Howe had intended. The consequence was that Everton ran 3km more; they made 52 more sprints. In a game too far, Newcastle ran out of steam.
At the start of the season, Newcastle had job-shares, substitutions on the wing, at centre-forward, in midfield, looking to overpower opponents with fresh legs and still more running power. That strategy has been removed from Howe’s disposal and if one argument is that most of those still available would feature in his strongest side, even squad players such as Jacob Murphy, Joe Willock and Elliot Anderson could have been invaluable to inject energy in the closing stages. “To have the attacking options we feel we need to change the game, that’s not there for us and that’s a big miss,” Howe said.
Without them, the defence eventually buckled. When three goals in 17, late minutes suggested Newcastle – who had only conceded two in the previous 348 – had finally succumbed to exhaustion, Howe all but concurred. “I am in a difficult position to agree because if I do, what stops that happening again and again?” he asked.
It is a particularly pertinent question. Some of Newcastle’s injured brigade are back in training; Howe is unsure if anyone will be ready to return at Tottenham on Sunday. It is AC Milan after that, a question if the 10 men whose names are now inked into every teamsheet can make it six starts – and, in some cases, six finishes – in a row in six major matches.
“You can potentially do it for a short period of time, the longer you do it the harder it gets,” Howe said. “That’s not to say it’s impossible. We don’t just put the same players out there for the sake of it.” But, shorn of options, nor does he really do it out of choice. In a few days when they could slip seven points behind fourth place and tumble out of the Champions League, Newcastle could be reduced to damage limitation.
“I have been there mentally for a while, I have been through all the emotions and come to terms with it,” Howe added. “In my shoes you can only control what you can control.”
Fate has turned on Newcastle and, in the process, altered perceptions. The world’s richest club have been rebranded as underdogs by the scale of their absentees, a team some neutrals disliked because of their owners earning admiration with their unstinting efforts. Their manager has never resorted to complaining. “We have beaten some big teams with a hugely reduced squad,” Howe said. Now, perhaps drained by defeat, with still more miles in their legs, they have to take on two more. Football is famously a game played by teams of 11. Newcastle’s problem is that it seems the same 11, all the time.
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