Evertonians everywhere are full of energy at this moment in history. With the historic ten-point deduction levied against the side by the Premier League for FFP violations, alongside the past two seasons of relegation battles, and a revitalized side bossed by Sean Dyche, there is a lot to be passionate about.
This is a team that should be near the top half of the table - just a few points off of tenth place - yet must take three to push Luton Town back into 18th. Yet the next two matches will be a real test for the Toffees, with Newcastle up to Merseyside first on Thursday, before Chelsea comes to Goodison on Sunday.
Newcastle is no laughing matter, with a very fluid, tough, and physical side that can push any side in the Premier League to the limits. Eddie Howe knows how to organize his side defensively, and has attacking players - including Anthony Gordon - that can punish sides who lose possession to freely.
Sean Dyche will have to organize for a siege of sorts, but counterattacking will be the name of the game on Thursday. What will play out at Goodison Park? It remains to be seen, but the crowd will have to be lively to dull the edge of a well-versed Magpie side.
RBM: First off, after the dominant play against United over the weekend - alongside the positive year the Magpies are again experiencing - what are the feelings like around the side and its supporters?
AL: The overall feelings are great if only because of the renaissance the club is experiencing, the European play that not so long ago felt light years away, and the actual competitive spirit of the squad, which has grown organically even with the arrival of the PIF and the takeover of the organization.
At the same time, however, there is a bittersweet feeling to everything because the season has been a little bit disappointing when it comes to dumb, random bad luck with injuries. The team had more than ten players on the shelves just a few weeks ago, and adding injury to insult, Newcastle just lost their starting goalkeeper for the next four-to-five months. Sheesh...
EN: I would be shocked if any Newcastle fan was actually upset with where Newcastle are right now. Despite an injury crisis that has seen them resorting to naming three keepers on the bench and a collection of academy players, the team is sitting in 6th with a clear path to Champions League football still in sight. It is honestly impressive that the team is still playing well despite the injury crisis and increased amount of matches compared to last season. I feared Newcastle’s season would be similar to West Ham’s season last year, who struggled in the league when they got an increased workload due to European football.
RBM: How is this side handling increased expectations across the board, including domestically and concerning Champions League football?
EN: I think there has been a sense of honesty about the results from all involved. Players recognize when they have not been good enough, Eddie Howe has said all the right things after matches, and fans have generally not overreacted to Newcastle not being top of their group or firmly in the top 3 or 4. There was an understanding going into the season that teams around Newcastle would improve, and that teams who had lackluster seasons last season would eventually right the ship. If Newcastle were not in a “Group of Death” I would be curious to see how the fanbase reacted to the team’s European form.
The expectation in a different group might be for Newcastle to finish in the top 2, but for now, people are being rational and recognizing that this is genuinely a difficult group with teams who all play at a high level. Every win in this group has felt like a massive win, and every loss or draw has not completely deflated the fanbase.
Domestically, with all things considered, I think competing for European spots is all that can be expected. Newcastle finished in a Champions League spot “ahead of schedule,” and I believe most fans can acknowledge that. However, I do think some of the players brought in, and the brilliance of Howe so far has made it that competing for a spot in Europe is the standard going forward until this team has a multitude of World Class players.
The injury crisis currently occurring has really made fans more appreciative of where the team is in the table, and I think Newcastle fans are hyperaware that the team needs to continue to get deeper across the board before the expectation can be “Champions League or bust.”
AL: Considering the precarious status of the health bill, I don’t think any fan or actual member of the staff, top to bottom, can ask for more and a better handling of the situation.
After a bit of a shaky start to the season, Eddie Howe finally got the team right, put them on the right path, and after a month of struggles everything got much smoother, and the club is now where it should given the initial timeline. Newcastle is back in the mojo for European qualification, advancing in domestic cups, and realistically aiming at a third-place finish in the UCL group stage, earning them a berth for the Europa League knockout stage.
RBM: How has Eddie Howe turned this side into a fierce and aggressive force?
AL: It’s been the same from day one, and the fact that there hasn’t been any “diva-type” arrival has also helped. If you remember, Man City was taken over, and they instantly signed Robinho just because the situation called for it, not even thinking twice about how that might impact the squad, etc.
That’s not even remotely close to how Newcastle’s board and Eddie Howe himself has dealt with the squad. Some signings, including Anthony Gordon from Everton to some extent, have been criticized or at least put under the microscope for being considered “too small/niche/lower-level” by some bandwagoners, but it’s the Howe Way, and it’s simply working.
Speaking of working, that’s the best description. Everybody who steps into the pitch weekly clad in black and white stripes knows and willingly accepts that he is going to be demanded to run up and down and make the extra effort no matter what.
EN: It’s been this way since he started. His first training session was putting the entire team through the pacer test (or beep test); from the start, he’s stressed having an in-shape team that doesn’t tire at the end of matches. It seems he believes that tired bodies lead to mental lapses, and it was a priority for Newcastle to not be a team that gives up last-minute goals, or makes mistakes late in matches.
Obviously, nobody is perfect, and those mental lapses have occured in the Howe era, but nowhere near the degree the team would struggle with closing out matches under Steve Bruce. Once the baseline was set, Howe began to implement a pressing system that would allow Newcastle to win the ball in dangerous areas so that it makes it easier to at a minimum, get a shot on target. More and more wrinkles were added into the overall system, and this in combination with genuinely improving players such as Fabian Schar, Miguel Almiron, Jacob Murphy, and Sean Longstaff, has made Newcastle the team they are.
For much of the Howe era, he has had the same players that Steve Bruce had; he just empowered them to play at their best by instilling confidence in them and actually implementing a system that gets the best out of the players available.
It obviously helps when you have the ability to bring in players like Isak, Trippier, Bruno Guimaraes, and Anthony Gordon.
RBM: What can the team make of Europe this season, and what are the expectations after the “group of death?”
EN: It’s been a fun European experience so far, yes it was an unlucky draw if your aim was to have the easiest pathway to the knockout rounds, but on the other hand, you could not have asked for a better slew of European away days in Newcastle’s return to Champions League. The San Siro, Parc des Princes, and are all dream destinations for many football fans.
Given how evenly matched the group has been and how tense the matches have been, I don’t know if anyone would truly be that upset if Newcastle flailed out of the Champions League. It was genuinely a hard group, and Newcastle have played many of the matches with serious injury issues.
AL: Group of Death or not, I never thought Newcastle would advance past the group. Don’t get me wrong, the trouncing of PSG at St James’ Park and the close-but-no-cigar draw against them in Paris a few days ago were sublime performances, but for a team that is clearly not accustomed to the continental stage qualifying for the knockout stages was always a dream.
Now, getting into the Europa League via a third-place finish always sounded more realistic to me, and perhaps even something reasonable to demand from the team at this point, even just two and a half years into this new era. They will clinch that position with a draw in their final group game, so it’s all in there for them to take.
After that, I’d be happy if they advance a round or two, and not get mad if they crash out of the UEL at that point. Step by step, folks!
RBM: What does this team need to improve upon, and might we see January machinations to accomplish any necessary innovations?
AL: Improve the chef staff and the breakfast menu! Jokes aside, it’s hard to tell because every team needs more quality, and Newcastle definitely doesn’t need more depth than they already have.
Yes, they need it now because they have more than ten players injured and suspended, but even then, they are beating the PSGs and Man Utds of the world with the backups of their backups.
Out of context and injuries, there is a need for a new striker to bolster a unit that only features a natural one in oft-banged-up Callum Wilson and some defensive talent in the middle of the line. Having a proper reserve goalie might help, but it’s such a special position that it might be better to have a clear no. 1 rather than a 1A/1B type partnership.
EN: The biggest issue is depth. The midfield is probably the weakest area as they’ve dealt with nagging injuries from Joelinton and Joe Willock, have lost Longstaff and Elliot Anderson for a chunk of the season, as well as lost Tonali until next year. Bruno G has been the only midfielder to play in the majority of the games this season for the team, and right now they are one more injury away from moving fullbacks into the midfield like they have with Lewis Hall.
With Jacob Murphy sidelined and Harvey Barnes still out, the attacking unit is starting to look more and more thin. Especially when, in the past, Newcastle have relied on Joelinton, Elliot Anderson or Joe Willock to fill in as a winger. It might make sense to add an attacking option in January. This makes even more sense when you consider there have been a few matches where Newcastle have had to play Anthony Gordon as a false nine because both Wilson and Isak were injured.
RBM: What are the expectations for this side internally at this point?
EN: A cup run in the EFL or FA Cup is definitely a priority. That has been the case since Newcastle made the EFL Cup final, and the tone around the team was that they wanted to make a cup final of some point. I would argue a deep-cup run would be the main priority for Newcastle. There is a clear want to win a trophy, and its more likely they win the EFL Cup or FA Cup before the Champions League or the Premier League.
For the League, them competing for a European spot feels like a fair ask, given they are currently doing that near the midway point of the season. Another CL spot for next year would be a nice bonus, but given the injury crisis and the fact Newcastle are without their marquee summer signing for the year, nobody should be upset if they finish in a Europa spot.
For the CL, this group has been absolute chaos, so I think getting out of the group and still getting to play some European Football of any kind is a bonus, whether that is CL knockout stages or the Europa League Playoff.
AL: The reports that come from sources close to those in the known have always said that the owners and the PIF-backed board are happy with the slow development of everything Newcastle, from the on-field to the off-field product, and that seems to be the actual truth.
Howe went through a rough span of results and some fans nonsensically started to call for his firing, but we heard crickets from inside the club and if anything, only a stronger than ever support for him and his work. The same go for the players, both homegrown and acquired from elsewhere.
If you look at the off-field affairs, it’s been pretty much the same. It was removing some stale sponsorship from the stadium first, then rebuilding the training ground, adding some new sponsors, and Adidas will join the party next season as the main brand backing up the club. It’s been a steady improvement all around the team, the organization, and even the city of Newcastle, so I don’t think we can expect any drama from NUFC any time, barring a huge surprise.
RBM: How do you expect Newcastle to set up on Thursday, and which of Newcastle’s players do you think can cause Everton the most problems in the game?
AL: Wing back (because of late nobody knows if he’s a true right or left back) Tino Livramento is an absolute gem of a player, and one of those “wait, who?” signings as most casual fans labeled him when he arrived, let alone started to make a name for himself no more than a few months ago.
Midfielder Lewis Miley is the academy gem of Newcastle at this point in time. He’s not even 18, but he’s had some impressive outings in both the Premier League and the Champions League. With all of the injuries, he’s pretty much penciled in the weekly lineup now, so keep an eye on him.
If you ask me how the boys will line up, well, it’s not that Howe will ever even consider changing his classic 4-3-3, so expect the usual formation with the best-available players taking all XI positions, including (if I had to guess) the trio of Miguel Almiron, Anthony Gordon (on his natural position on the wing), and Alexander Isak leading the forward line.
EN: Well, the injury concerns at Newcastle mean we are likely seeing a similar lineup to the one that beat Manchester United sans Nick Pope, who dislocated his shoulder.
Newcastle Starting XI: Dubravka, Trippier, Lascelles, Schar, Livramento, Miley, Guimaraes, Joelinton, Almiron, Isak, Gordon.
The most dangerous player this season from Newcastle has been Anthony Gordon, who has not had a bad match all year. Whether he is playing out wide or as a false 9, he’s constantly finding space and keeping a back line on their toes. The other player to be mindful of if you are an Evertonian is Isak, who is genuinely just an elite goalscorer. He’s scored from practically every angle possible in every way possible as a Newcastle player and is one of those players who only need 1-2 chances to punish you.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Thursday’s affair?
EN: I think this could be a 2-1 win for Newcastle. I think Everton are better than 14th for sure, but Newcastle have continued to play at a somewhat high level despite the injuries, and players such as Livramento and Lewis Miley are growing more and more confident each match after being called to fill in for injuries.
AL: The lads are hella damaged, but I have to go with a win here. Give me a nice, solid, respectful 2-0 win, and let’s call it a peaceful day.
Our thanks to Antonio and Elijah for their time.