What’s gone wrong at Newcastle?
Having tasted defeat in only two of their first 29 matches in all competitions this season, the Magpies have found themselves on the wrong end of 2-0 scorelines in each of their last three, albeit against Liverpool, Manchester United and Manchester City.
Perhaps more worrying, however, is that they have won only one of the eight league games they have played since Boxing Day, and that has significantly loosened their grip on a place in the top four.
Where has it gone wrong?
Football is a simple game and the equation for Newcastle’s slide is uncomplicated: they have not scored enough goals and have conceded too many.
Since they hit three in the league at Leicester on December 26, they have found the back on the net on only nine occasions in 13 games in all competitions, and only three times in eight top-flight fixtures.
By contrast, a team which conceded a miserly 13 goals in the first 22 games of the league campaign has leaked four in the two since and started to look uncharacteristically vulnerable from set-pieces.
What are the causes?
Head coach Howe has made no secret of his desire to play on the front foot and his team’s industry and desire, which fuelled a breathless pressing game, coupled with a lightning counter-attacking threat, paid impressive dividends during the first half of the campaign.
However, that approach is energy-sapping and tired legs and fatigued minds have hindered the necessary co-ordination between the attacking and midfield units to lessen its impact in recent weeks.
In addition, opposition managers have had time to work on counteracting that threat and in particular have started to exploit the space behind marauding full-back Kieran Trippier on one side and attack Dan Burn, a central defender playing at left-back, on the other, while Liverpool attacked central defender Sven Botman and Fabian Schar with balls over the top.
Much of the Magpies’ attacking threat is channelled through midfielder Bruno Guimaraes and he has found time and space at a premium, while the goals have dried up for Callum Wilson and Miguel Almiron.
What can Howe do to change it?
The 45-year-old has insisted, with some justification, that his team is playing well between the two penalty areas, but has not been clinical enough at either end of the pitch.
The margins between success and failure in those key areas are fine and rediscovering the defensive solidity which served his team so well previously could be achieved in part by restoring concentration levels.
Scoring goals may prove more challenging, although they are creating chances and that could ultimately come down to personnel.
Has he got the players to do so?
Defensively, Matt Targett’s return to fitness means Howe now has a specialist left-back at his disposal, which could also give him the option to play a back three, although that is not his inclination.
He has significantly more room for manoeuvre in attack with record signing Alexander Isak pushing for a starting berth, Allan Saint-Maximin returning to somewhere near his best form and January arrival Anthony Gordon finding his feet on Tyneside.
The clamour for all three to be given their chance in the quest for European qualification is growing by the week.
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