After looking positive in the stretch of matches that began with Nottingham Forest and ended with the draw to Tottenham Hotspur, April has not been a kind month to the Toffees. One win in nine games while other sides around them in the relegation race have picked up victories means Everton go into tonight’s game against Newcastle sitting in the bottom three.
Forest, Leicester, AFC Bournemouth, Leeds, and West Ham have all found some joy across recent matches, as the desperation of their individual and collective plights push them towards either making it, or else breaking entirely; Everton must surely choose one or the other soon - if they have not done so already, of course.
A draw and two losses in the last three matches isn’t great, but much of that can be dismissed with a shock three points against those Champions League-dreaming Magpies at Goodison Park. This is not the same Newcastle that supporters have come to know in recent years, and is truly a dangerous, young outfit that will cause the Blues some trouble - not that Sean Dyche doesn’t have some trouble men of his own, should they only get to cause a bit of trouble.
RBM: First off, after the emphatic dismantling of Spurs over the weekend - alongside the wonderful year the Magpies are experiencing - what are the feelings like around the side and its supporters?
AL: People around Newcastle are ecstatic, although that’s nothing new, considering the fanbase was already one of the greatest across the country. Of course, if they were there through the muddy years of the Mike Ashley era celebrating the tiniest of victories, it was expected for everybody to be over the moon once things turned for the good.
That said, I don’t think anybody—not me, at least—expected this type of turnaround so quickly, so that has only added more wood to the happiness fire. Anything ending in a top-10 finish this season would have been a reason for celebrating. Clinching a Conference League place, I assume, would have been more than good for any realistic fan. The Europa League would be a bit of an overachievement.
You guess how sitting in third place with just six games left to play and a real chance at getting into the Champions League must feel barely two seasons after the takeover. I still don’t think this team are showing their true-talent level, and I’m still thinking Newcastle is punching above their real weight, but it’s not that I can complain.
E: It’s pure euphoria. The team is fun to watch, and every time it seems like the team is slipping up they go on some sort of astonishing run that gives you renewed faith that this team is as good as the table says they are.
RBM: While cynics will point to the Saudi ownership, their money and all that, what has Eddie Howe done to achieve such a wonderful turnaround with a side that realistically hasn’t spent an incredible amount relative to the biggest spenders of the Premier League?
E: It really is down to getting the most out of the players available. Guys like Jacob Murphy, Miguel Almiron, Sean Longstaff, Joelinton, and Joe Willock are playing some of the best football of their careers. They are all playing with a confidence that we have not seen from them before. All of those guys looked horrendous under Burce, and the only thing that has rally changed for the in the past two years was Eddie Howe becoming their manager.
AL: It is very obvious that having the Saudi Arabia PIF backing everything helped. Even just for starters, the arrival of the new ownership meant bringing the Mike Ashley tenure to an end and bringing Eddie Howe to take charge of the team from the sidelines, with just by itself was a 180-degree turn in how the club was being handled top to bottom.
Some players of inarguable quality arrived, but Newcastle keeps fielding more than a few lads that were in the team already by the time Howe took the reins and while some huge splashes have popped up through the past three transfer windows—Alexander Isak, Anthony Gordon—the truth is that some of the most important performers on a weekly basis were signed at prices affordable by any other Premier League club out there.
But getting back to Howe and his work, it’s been quite impressive, to say the least. Joelinton was a monster flop of a striker, and now he’s an unbeatable and stout box-to-box mid-winger, whatever that means. Callum Wilson got molly-boosted and his form of late is just insane. Fabian Schar, Sean Longstaff, Miguel Almiron, Allan Saint-Maximin... all of them have been here for ages, but only after Howe’s arrival did they really explode and reach the top of their levels.
It’s been wonderful to watch, really, because it’s been a mixture of developing homegrown talents (or at least, players that were already here when the PIF arrived) and signings bolstering the squad. If everything had been based on just bringing an entirely new XI to town a few weeks after the takeover, I think that would have brought an unbridgeable disconnection between the team/players and the fanbase, and this season would not have been half as fun even if they were getting the same results.
RBM: Who is shining in the side right now? Is this a side that is still young enough that they’re only just learning how to play the best as individuals and as a unit with one another?
AL: After a dreadful return from the World Cup break, the team started to bag goals in bunches of late. It was obvious that Almiron was never going to end the season at his 30-goal pace from early in the campaign, but scoring just three team goals from Dec. 31st to Mar. 4th was also out of the norm.
Newcastle have scored two or more goals in six of their last seven Premier League games. They won all of those matches and only lost one (to a refreshed Aston Villa) in that span. After injuries halted his play for the better part of the fall/winter, Isak has delivered and Wilson has turned into a super-sub scorer.
The best trait of Newcastle as a team is that they have played as a unit from day one as there has been natural growth as I said before. Jacob Murphy, for example, couldn’t crack half of the league’s XIs, but he’s been fantastic for NUFC because he’s been around forever and just fits Howe’s system and Newcastle’s model like a glove.
The squad is also leaning toward a younger generation with a U25 player already established in each line—Sven Botman on defense, Bruno in the middle, and Isak in the forward line—so that’s a great foundation, and things can only get better from there, in my opinion.
E: The easy (and boring) answer is Alexander Isak. I mean, he is scoring a goal once every 97.2 minutes, which is second in the prem only to the machine Erling Haaland. He simply is on paper the best player for Newcastle in this current run of form.
Alexander Isak is averaging a goal once every 97.2 minutes in the Premier League this season:— Squawka (@Squawka) April 23, 2023
◎ 972 minutes
◉ 10 goals scored
The only player with 5+ goals scoring more regularly is Erling Haaland. pic.twitter.com/1PzXBE4By4
I will keep it interesting and say the players in the midfield not named Bruno have been in the form of their lives. Joelinton, Joe Willock and Sean Longstaff have been key to Newcastle’s recent run of form. Their work rate in the midfield has made the counterpress so effective, and now they are bringing consistent offense as well, which is making it a nightmare midfield to deal with.
Regarding the age of the side, I don’t think the youth is an issue, as the youngest players are guys who have slotted in and immediately contributed like Isak, Willock, Botman, and Bruno. I think now it is about getting every signing right as the club begins to phase out odler players in yars to come. Signings like Anthony Gordon or Harrison Ashby, as well as academy products like Elliot Anderson, have no pressure to perform immediately regardless of their price tag or potential because the club has guys performing ahead of them.
The good thing for these younger guys is that Eddie Howe has been pretty adamant about having open competitions for positions, so if someone is outperforming someone in matches or in training they will get an opportunity to start. Newcastle also have a good amount of guys in their prime, like Joelinton, Nick Pope, Murphy, and Bruno, who hopefully will be playing their best football at Newcastle over the next few years.
Overall, it seems as if there is a good mix of healthy competition for spots, savvy veterans, and solid young players in the squad. That honestly is an ideal spot to be in as a team.
RBM: What does this side still trip up concerning on occasion? Are the draws indicators of great defense and perhaps a lack of ambition sometimes?
E: With all due respect. Newcastle’s last draw was against Bournemouth in February, and was in the middle of an awful run of form. Since losing to Manchester City back in the beginning of March, Newcastle have lost once, and in every other game, have scored multiple goals each match. In that same run, they have beaten teams 5-1 and 6-1, respectively.
However, when Newcastle lose or draw it does come down to two things usually. A lack of focus from a very solid back line leads to a goal, and the offense not being able to convert chances. Right now, the back line still looks shaky at times, especially with Dan Burn at Left Back, but the offense has looked the best it has all year. It feels like everyone on the pitch is a threat to score or assist. I mean, against Spurs, Fabian Schar had two assists as a CB.
AL: To be fair, I think Newcastle should have no business inhibiting the top-4 as early as they are. I know NUFC fans might read this and think I’m out of my mind and talking nonsense, but I’m just keeping it a bit realistic.
Liverpool, Chelsea, Man Utd, and even Tottenham would have a lot/a few more points in any other season. Newcastle conceding the fewest goals in the league is just nonsense, really, as great as the defense and mostly GK Nick Pope have been all year long.
One thing you notice at times in all Newcastle games is how there still is a little gap in talent between Newcastle’s players and some of the absolute top-tier performers—your Haaland, De Bruyne, Vini, Mbappe, Bellingham, and the like—when they attempt clumsy tackles, misfire open shots, misdirect easy passes, etc... That, to me, says regression is coming even though in fairness it feels like the lads never reach that implosion point.
RBM: Surely a Champions League position is the ambition at this point? What will the team look to add in the summer should they achieve a top-four finish?
AL: I was going to discuss this in the question above, but it makes even more sense to assess while answering this one.
Newcastle lacks one thing, and one very glaring thing at that: depth.
The defense has been insanely great, but all four defenders (and Nick Pope) sit atop the minutes played team leaderboard, and other than Sven Botman, they will all be 32 years old by the end of the 2023 calendar year.
There are 14 players with 970+ minutes in their bodies. Of those, 12 have played 1,060+ minutes. Of those, 10 have started 24+ games. I’m not saying continuity isn’t good. Still, the lack of quality options on the bench has hurt at times this season and will inevitably (and to greater extents) do so going forward if the team finds themselves playing in the league, in a couple of cups, and in the Champions/Europa League on top of everything next season.
Do I need to mention what happened to the Leicester side that reigned supreme in the Premier League the year after they did so while navigating the UCL? You don’t want to turn into that sort of yo-yo club, but you need talented warm bodies to stay at the top yearly.
As the big dogs say, you gotta have two XIs, one starting, and the other waiting on the wings, if not equally capable, at least close enough. From what we’ve heard repeated to no end, Newcastle will be looking to add players in the midfield (no. 6 and no. 8), a couple of multi-position forwards, and a left-back. We published a comprehensive report on transfer targets at CHN a few weeks ago.
E: Yeah, I think it is pretty clear Champions League is the goal. The summer will likely involve, at a minimum, finding another left-back so that Newcastle can have two true left-backs on the roster. Outside of that, I thnk the goal is creating depth wherever they can. This means you’ll see Newcastle try to strengthen in multiple areas with maybe only one really flashy signing. FFP is something to start to pay attention to with a decently large summer window last summer, and a winter window before that. I personally would love Newcastle to bring in a true ball-winner to allow Bruno to play as an 8, while also bolstering an already strong midfield. I additionally could see Newcastle bringing in a right-footed center back with the possibility that Jamal Lascelles could leave the club this summer. It’s also a position they need some youth at, Fabian Schar is not getting any younger.
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?
E: Eddie does not rotate unless he absolutely has to or a player is getting outplayed by someone behind them in the team. Given that Newcastle were able to rest a lot of the starters due to a fairly dominating first-half performance against Tottenham, the same exact 4-3-3 we saw come out against Spurs will likely start against Everton. This means Pope in goal with Burn, Botman, Schar, and Trippier ahead of him. The midfield will likely consist of Sean Longstaff, Bruno, and Joe Willock. While the attack will feature a trio that scored 5 goals in their last match: Jacob Murphy, Alexander Isak, and Joelinton.
Out of that XI, I think Joelinton is going to cause a lot of problems. He is scoring, assisting and has been all over the pitch defensively. He has really excelled at being one of the main ball winners in Newcastle’s counter press, and is really starting to make the right reads once he wins the ball. Even when he is nowhere near the ball, he is making the right runs to make himself an option. This is evidenced in the goal he scored in the Spurs match where he made a perfectly timed run behind the back line to give himself a 1v1 opportunity with Hugo Lloris.
If the game slows down a lot, Isak has been the spark the Newcastle offense missed during their awful run of form at the beginning of the calendar year. He is a great ball carrier, completely comfortable dropping into the midfield to facilitate, and is always looking to create or finish chances. He is turning into a complete forward, and is looking well worth the price tag.
AL: Howe has been known for relying on a large group of players with minimal changes if those are not suffering some sort of injury preventing them from making it to the XI. That’s mostly why former Toffee Anthony Gordon has found it hard to crack the XI in his first few weeks in Tyneside, which already happened to Bruno last year when he arrived from Lyon but was introduced in the rotation slowly.
The defensive unit (GK and four-man line) is most probably not going to change. With Everton not having the best players in the EPL, though, and not positing the strongest threat, it’s possible that Howe rotates Dan Burn and introduces Matt Target in the left-back position.
The midfield trio will feature the usual suspects—Bruno, Sean Longstaff, and Joe Willock. Not only because they are the best players for those positions, but only because with Allan Saint-Maximin (left winger) out injured, that opens the flank for Joelinton (apt to man the midfield) to be deployed there without much trouble.
The question marks have been on the right-winger and striker positions of late, considering how ridiculously great Murphy, Isak, and Wilson have all played...but how can it work? 1] the latter two won’t ever play together (Howe has already said that he doesn’t plan to start both in a two-striker formation), and 2] the former can’t believe what he’s doing but will eventually have to make room for first-half-of-the-season-MVP Miguel Almiron once he’s fully fit after returning from injury and only knowing how to play on the right wing.
The Magpies are just dropping goals these days, so without naming names, it’s fair to assume someone, whoever it is, will at least put one on Everton’s net eventually.
RBM: Finally, what’s your prediction for Thursday’s match?
AL: Newcastle went up 5-0 against Tottenham in 20 minutes but still showed some interest, activity, and willingness to keep pushing.
I can’t say such a demolition will be happening again on Thursday, though, but the guys are flying, and I see no reason for them not to earn another multi-goal win this midweek.
Let’s leave it at 2-0 Newcastle.
Our thanks to Antonio and Elijah for their time.