St. James’ Park will host Champions League football for the first time in 20 years after Newcastle’s goalless draw with Leicester City secured a top four finish.
Eddie Howe’s team has been one of the success stories of the campaign, rising from an 11th placed finish last season to challenge the Premier League’s established elite.
Newcastle have a team to make their city dream again, and these are the key decisions on and off the pitch that set them on their way.
Newcastle identified Botman as one of the best centre-back prospects in Europe when Mike Ashley was still keeping a tight hold of the purse strings. They failed to persuade Lille to sell the 23-year-old in January 2022 and were worried about AC Milan gazumping them. But a charm offensive was launched and Botman was impressed with Newcastle’s sales pitch.
Even though the Italians matched their £35 million bid, the player decided he wanted to play on Tyneside. It illustrated to everyone that Newcastle could compete with the biggest names in Europe to sign top players.
When Newcastle first made their move for Isak, as revealed by Telegraph Sport in July, they were quoted an asking price of more than £80 million by Real Sociedad. It was too much and a collective decision was made to look at other options.
It was a blow with everyone at the club unanimous he would be a perfect signing. It was also a reminder of Newcastle’s limited spending power, despite all the talk of them being the richest club in the world.
Things changed in the wake of a 3-3 draw against Manchester City on August 21. Chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan was in town for the game, which was not only a sign of how much progress Newcastle had made under Howe but also of the fragility of Callum Wilson. The England international was taken off with a hamstring injury which left Newcastle with Chris Wood as the only other center forward option in the squad.
A hastily arranged recruitment meeting was called, which included Al-Rumayyan. Howe made his pitch, joined by director of football Dan Ashworth, explaining why they wanted Isak. Ashworth was given the green light to travel to San Sebastian and make the deal happen, which he eventually did for a price of £54 million with another £10 million in add-ons.
Despite an injury-plagued start Isak has been superb, scoring 10 goals in 20 appearances, and drawing strong comparisons with his idol Thierry Henry.
A new tactical system
It has been dubbed “The Swarm” but Newcastle completely changed the way they wanted to play during a particularly grueling and intense pre-season. Howe’s side are relentless, pressing high up the pitch and looking to overwhelm opponents with speed and numbers. The idea is to “swarm all over” opposition teams, hunting the ball in packs, tackling with intent and attacking with varying angles and passing patterns. The team is in a constant state of motion. It is like trying to contain a swarm of black and white wasps and it grinds teams down.
Newcastle against the world
this is where we need to pause. The decision to buy Newcastle United by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) was driven many believe by a desire to “sportswash” the country’s image, raise its international profile and cleanse its status on the global stage. It is a so-called “soft power” grab utilizing the Premier League’s global reach.
The more successful Newcastle are, the more favorably it reflects on a country which is still condemned by Amnesty International for human rights abuses. This, though, is not something that worries Newcastle supporters on a day-to-day basis. Although the Saudis control the club with their 80 percent stake, they have remained largely in the background. Al-Rumayyan conducts intermittent “progress meetings” with heads of departments, but Newcastle is just one part of his portfolio of investments to manage. It is the British based members of the consortium who are front of house.
The criticism of Newcastle’s ownership model has fed into a perception that Newcastle are disliked and unpopular. It has helped create a them against us attitude and Geordies are good at fighting their corner. The new Newcastle United is spiky, confrontational and confident. They want to compete and if that upsets people, no problem.
Some of that has been generated by the constant sniping at who owns them and why. But it has, in truth, always been part of the Geordie mentality. The rest of the country has always tended to mock Newcastle and its people and its football team, but they have always been incredibly proud of the city and where they come from.
January transfer window tension
Newcastle have spent a lot of money but not an extravagant amount in the three transfer windows under PIF. The wage bill remains considerably less than the established members of the Big Six and was also below the likes of Everton, Aston Villa and Leicester last year.
For all the talk of “buying their success” it is worth highlighting that the £250 million spent on new players is dwarfed by several clubs over the same period of time they have been in charge.
But in January, Newcastle were in a predicament. Howe and Ashworth had argued that the squad needed more depth and that injuries could derail their campaign. Darren Eales, the chief executive, warned that Financial Fair Play rules made it extremely difficult to spend that month.
There was some tension and when Chris Wood (£12 million) and Jonjo Shelvey (nominal fee) were both allowed to leave for Nottingham Forest to reduce the wage bill, Howe was not overly pleased. His squad, rather than strengthened, actually looked weaker at the end of the window despite the arrival of Anthony Gordon from Everton for £45 million that month.
Howe did not want either player to leave. He also refused any suggestion that a player like Allan Saint-Maximin could be sold to bring in funds to reinvest. He only sanctioned the sale of Wood and Shelvey because the players asked to leave.
It is a gamble that has worked. Newcastle will have far more room for maneuver in this summer window because of the budget and wage restrictions imposed in January, and as a result will be extremely ambitious in landing their targets over the next three months.
Carabao Cup run and fallout
The scenes in London in the build up to the final against Manchester United were special, with tens of thousands of fans traveling to the capital and “occupying” Trafalgar Square. But the game itself brought a familiar feeling of disappointment and anti-climax in a straightforward 2-0 defeat.
Privately, Howe and his coaching staff were a little exasperated by the clamor for tickets and the constant talk about Wembley in the build up, feeling the players had become too distracted. It served to highlight how “Newcastle were not a club used to success” as one senior source put it to Telegraph Sport, with defeats to Liverpool and Manchester City either side of that final making it their worst run of the season.
It is something that has occupied Howe’s mind since. With Champions League football next season, Newcastle will have more games and even more distractions. Domestic cup competitions will still be vitally important. Squad rotation will be critical to prevent burnout.
The squad, as it stands, is not big or good enough to fight on four fronts, which is likely to lead to the most money spent under the new owners in a single window as they approach the summer.
The power of a city
It is not just a football club that has reawakened since the takeover in October 2021, as an entire city has stirred and now strides confidently forward again. Every game at St James’ Park feels like an occasion. The city center bars and clubs are also packed with those who want to join in but cannot get hold of tickets. The expansion of St. James’ Park cannot come soon enough.
Newcastle United are the most obvious and potent expression of civic pride on Tyneside, and this energy that has been taken into St James’ Park on a matchday. The atmosphere, led by Wor Flags’ displays, is intimidating and hostile, and it is no coincidence that only Liverpool and Arsenal have won at “the Cathedral on the Hill” since January 2022.
Staying calm under pressure
Newcastle is an emotional football club, but Howe has managed it superbly. Being able to block out the noise, both inside and outside the football club, has kept the team and staff focused on what needs to be done – and it is always trying to win the next game.
It is very easy to be distracted as Newcastle manager, either believing the hype or becoming bogged down by perceived slights and criticisms from a fanbase infamously described as “bi-polar” by former goalkeeper and now Academy director Steve Harper. Howe has avoided that and credit, too, must also go to the owners.
The appointment of Dan Ashworth as director of football was arguably their most important decision outside of naming Howe manager. Eales has been equally impressive as chief executive.
The owners have, to a large extent, stepped back and let them run the football club for them. It is a well run club and that is why, in the space of just 18 months, Newcastle have turned a relegation battle into a top four finish.
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