It was Eddie Howe’s 44th birthday on Monday but Newcastle’s manager had no time, or apparent inclination, for celebrations. Howe is in the unique position of helming arguably the world’s wealthiest football club at a moment when even its cash-rich Saudi Arabian-led owners are incapable of purchasing the only currency that counts: Premier League points.
“We’re certainly going to have to start winning soon,” he said before a watershed week featuring home games with Norwich on Tuesday night and Burnley on Saturday. “There’s a huge challenge ahead.”
Given Newcastle are the sole team in England’s top four divisions yet to secure a victory Howe faces constant reminders that football’s modern history offers little hope of escaping relegation. Only one side with a comparably dismal record at this point in a campaign have avoided falling into the second tier but, even if emulating Derby’s Houdini act of 2000-01 will not be easy, he spies a potential solution.
Whereas Rafael Benítez, regularly complained that Newcastle’s limited squad and vulnerable backline left him with a “short blanket”, Howe intends elongating the team’s tactical bedsheet.
Benítez, who left St James’ Park in 2019, justified his safety-first tactics by maintaining that a strong emphasis on attack would create a self-destructive imbalance, exposing the team’s defensive weaknesses. “If you cover your head, you have cold feet,” he said. “But if you cover your feet, it leaves your head cold.”
In contrast, Howe remains convinced attack is the best form of defence. “I prefer to talk about stretching the blanket,” said a manager without the suspended Jamaal Lascelles and Matt Ritchie against Norwich. “I don’t believe in copying Rafa’s statement. It’s about coaching, educating, helping the players. When confidence returns we’ll see a difference.”
It is all part of a long-running debate revolving around whether Newcastle’s travails are down to the shortcomings of Howe’s immediate predecessor, Steve Bruce, or a squad still containing a nucleus of the first XI Benitez led out of the Championship in 2017.
Tellingly, the former Newcastle captain and manager Alan Shearer believes “at least three or four signings are required in January”, with the current side “nowhere near good enough.”
Although the cashflow may be restricted by an extension until 14 December of the Premier League’s temporary ban on clubs striking commercial arrangements involving pre-existing business relationships, there should be significant money to spend in the new year.
Under financial fair play rules, Newcastle could, theoretically, spend almost £200m on players in January. Howe, though, says he is still to discuss transfer budgets with Amanda Staveley and her fellow directors and suggested his biggest problem may be enticing talent.
“It’s very difficult to make any promises,” said a manager still awaiting the appointment of a new chief executive and director of football. “You have to attract players, they have to want to come and they have to improve the squad. January’s an incredibly difficult window to recruit in, especially when your league position’s difficult.
“I know the owners will support the team, and me, in trying to achieve what we need but it would be foolish to make rash promises. My priority is getting the best out of the players we have in the building now.”
Gabby Agbonlahor, the former Aston Villa striker, has provoked controversy by saying footballers regard Newcastle as an undesirable home. “I don’t think that’s accurate,” said Howe. “I haven’t seen the city in daylight yet but everyone I’ve spoken to says how nice the area is to live in.
“I’ve heard amazing things about the city centre and the surrounding areas. Longer term, we’ll have no problem attracting players. I don’t think that’s going to be an issue. But what will be an issue in January is our league position.”
At least Howe will be able to and greet his new public on Tuesday night. He was forced to spend his first home game as manager, a 3-3 draw against Brentford, isolating in a hotel room overlooking the Tyne after testing positive for Covid-19 the previous day.
“It was devastating,” he said. “The timing couldn’t have been worse but even from so far away I could hear the noise when we scored. I’m so looking forward to being inside the stadium.”