NEWCASTLE: Having promised so much, 2023 ends for Newcastle United with more questions than answers. And the main query on the lips of many supporters is whether Eddie Howe is the man to solve the rapidly devolving black and white conundrum?
Six defeats in seven games, eight in 12, has seen Newcastle at risk of dropping into the bottom half of the Premier League. It has also seen Howe’s men exit two competitions — the Champions League, a return to which is looking less and less likely by the week, and the Carabao Cup, in a meek last-eight surrender to struggling Chelsea.
The latest loss was arguably the worst of Howe’s tenure on Tyneside. Leading 1-0 thanks to an Alexander Isak penalty, the Magpies then shipped three goals in 15 minutes, all scored by former striker Chris Wood. All this against a side which had won just once away from home all season, and have been in turmoil, skirting around the edges of the topflight relegation fight.
While reaction in the stadium was far from vociferous in criticism, one look to social media paints a totally different picture. Fans aplenty are criticizing not only the loss in isolation, but a recent steady slip in standards. While many acknowledge the mitigating factors — injuries and a ridiculously unforgiving schedule — Howe is also lined up for some criticism.
And heading into 2024 — Newcastle travel to face Liverpool on Jan. 1 — there is much wonder about what the future holds at United, with the season at risk of petering out, just weeks after a four-front assault was still a very real prospect.
Howe is in agreement that things were far from good against Nuno Espirito Santo’s Forest. However, he does not believe pressure is building at St James’ Park.
He said: “It was a difficult afternoon. We didn’t deal with the transitions very well. In that first half we could have made it 2-0 but we were made to pay for it.
“Our first half performance was pretty good. Second half was difficult, we didn’t play particularly well. We were probably close to making it 2-0 then we get caught and they score.
“They had pace and physicality. We pride ourselves in defending those situations better and for whatever reason that wasn’t there.
“I am already analyzing what happened and as always we look to improve. Hopefully we get some training time now.”
The benefit, silver lining, if you will, of the recent drop-off, is a decongesting of the fixture calendar. Gone are the prospects of February European away days in either the Champions League or the Europa League, gone too is the prospect of a two-leg Carabao Cup semifinal. Both would have been just cause and brought some reward for recent league struggles.
Aside from the fight to secure one of the European places for next season, a sole cup competition remains, although a first Tyne-Wear derby in seven years, despite whetting the region’s appetite, gives little respite for Howe’s beleaguered and confidence-drained camp.
“I don’t think there’s one reason. I think it’s a whole combination of things as to why we’ve not been at our best,” Howe said of the downturn in recent performances.
“I don’t think we were far away. We need to train properly for perhaps the first time in months.”
On added pressure: “A team not playing at their best, you have to self-reflect. We don’t have more pressure than usual.”
While keen not to project any internal pressures out into the public domain, they are very real from within. While Howe will not admit it publicly, there is an expectation from some quarters inside the club that a top-six place is essential this season, anything less would be seen as a regression.
That is far from off the cards, but a massive improvement, particularly away from home must be overseen. And fans are wondering whether Howe can conjure up the answers to the questions posed by a grueling, challenging campaign which has so far failed to climb the heights of the last.
Skipper Kieran Trippier admits standards have slipped below where players expect — but is backing the squad and Howe to guide Newcastle through this rough patch.
He said: “We have been playing two games a week, week after week and some players aren’t used to that. My standards have dropped. I’m old enough to speak about myself and my standards have been nowhere near. I’ve faced enough setbacks in my career to know I can bounce back.
“We were in control in the first half, but it was the transitions that we’d spoken about. They have some very quick players and that’s where they hurt us. We were always in control. They have some very good players on the transition. The most important thing is we regroup and stick together. We have to start the second half of the season strong.”