How did Newcastle United secure top-four finish this season?

The rise of Newcastle United from relegation favourites to the Champions League has been one of the stories of the Premier League season. The Hard Tackle delves into how Eddie Howe found the right formula to get the Magpies over the line in their top-four bid despite a mid-season dip in form.

Newcastle United ended their 20-year absence from Europe’s most elite competition against Leicester City on Monday night after securing the point they required to fend off late pressure from Liverpool. They will be mixing it with the continent’s big guns on Europe’s biggest stage, something their fans could only dream of not long ago.

After so many difficult years under Mike Ashley’s vexing management, Newcastle United are ready to be taken seriously. You see, by clinching a top-four spot and cracking into Europe’s elite competition, Newcastle United have achieved what many before them had admirably tried but failed to do so. In fact, the Magpies and title-winning Leicester City are the only two sides to have achieved this feat in the last two decades.

Most seasons, whether it’s Leicester City battling it out a few years ago, Mauricio Pochettino’s Southampton a decade ago, or even Newcastle United themselves under Alan Pardew, there are regular sides contending at the top of the league in the first half of the season.

However, eventually, they all failed to keep up their strong form throughout the season, with results fading away as the traditional big-six teams found their mojo back and shackled the new kid around the block.

The reason is simple: the other 14 clubs don’t have the same squad depth as the so-called big six. Most pieces fit together in a specialised system that propels some clubs to the top of the table, but over the course of the season, that system more often than not gets found out, or the gate-crashing team loses their key player(s) to injury.

Similarly, while Newcastle United finally managed to crack the code, their pathway to sealing Champions League football wasn’t without twists and turns, especially after they endured a mid-season wobble that saw them slip out of the top 4.

They made a slow start to the season with only one victory in their first seven games, but as they began to turn a succession of draws at the start of the season into wins, Howe’s juggernaut looked unstoppable and went unbeaten in the next 12 games (9 wins, 3 draws), comfortably beating the pre-season top-four establishments Tottenham and Chelsea.

Around February time, at the point of the Carabao Cup final defeat against Manchester United, Newcastle’s form looked shaky, and they lost ground in the hunt for the Champions League. It was Newcastle’s first domestic cup final in 24 years at Wembley, and Howe later admitted that the magical cup run distracted his troops from Premier League business.

Ultimately, the Magpies were well beaten at the famous venue as Manchester United built up what would prove to be an unassailable two-goal lead in the first half at Wembley.

While defence remained the backbone of how Newcastle United got to where they were, problems scoring goals saw them slide slightly. Midfielders were misfiring, Miguel Almiron’s purple patch looked to be over, and Callum Wilson endured a genuine dry spell in front of goal.

In fact, between late December and early March, the Magpies played eight Premier League games, dropping points against Leeds United, Crystal Palace, West Ham, and Bournemouth while suffering hard-fought defeats against Liverpool and Manchester City.

Howe managed to turn things around with his genius, though. And THT takes a look at what were the potential driving factors behind Newcastle’s late-season revival that took the Toon faithful where they feel they belong and looking forward to hearing that enchanting music at St James’ Park after 20 years of exile.

Eddie Howe’s Masterclass

Whether creating an “us vs. the world” mentality amongst the players or silencing talk of Champions League football returning to St. James’ Park until the penultimate game of the season, Eddie Howe has been a master of keeping his players focused, united, and creating a winning culture at the club never seen before. Amidst the intense pressure of a top-four challenge against the odds, the club made light of the situation instead of crumbling.

There has been a clear mentality shift at Newcastle United under Howe, with Kieran Trippier’s arrival having proved another key factor in changing the mindset within the dressing room. Trippier, a ferociously driven perfectionist trained by none other than the master of the dark arts, Diego Simeone, is a winner who is willing to strain every sinew and make every permitted move in an attempt to achieve success. His attitude has clearly rubbed off on those around him.

However, a mentality shift can only take you so far without appropriate tactics, and in Howe, Newcastle have a smart and underrated tactician who can not only bring a system change by shuffling the roster but can actually coach a new role to the same players by spending more time on the training pitch.

When they finally hit their strides at the start of the season, Howe’s team epitomised physicality and are known for how difficult they are to play against. They play a breathless style of football and press in a narrow 4-3-3 setup similar to Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.

Their work rate, mobility, and tenacity enable them to consistently pressure the ball and force high turnovers before capitalising on them, as they have high-quality transition-heavy players in Allan Saint-Maximin, Joe Willock, and Joelinton. They were an absolute nightmare to play against, and the fact that they virtually exclusively play long from Nick Pope’s goal kicks is a testament to Howe’s evolution in style.

Burn tucks into the back three from left-back, and Saint-Maximin holds the width on the left. Trippier pushes on high and wide on the right wing, Almiron tucks inside into the half space, and he was made the most advanced forward as he was oozing with confidence at the start of the season. Bruno Guimaraes played as a progressive holding midfielder.

The aggression, pace, power, and ability to win the ball high up the pitch absolutely blew some teams away during that incredible run just before the World Cup, including the likes of Aston Villa, Fulham, and Everton, among others.

Having said that, the opposition teams became more accustomed to giving Newcastle more respect and started deploying deep blocks while also pressing and man-marking Newcastle’s creator-in-chief, Guimaraes, so the Magpies could not simply dictate proceedings.

The Magpies laboured to break down deep defences, and clear-cut chances were few and far between. For example, against Leeds, Palace, West Ham, and Bournemouth, all of whom earned a draw despite the Magpies’ dominance. Opponents also figured out the right-sided creative hub of Almiron, Longstaff, Guimaraes, and Trippier, which was a major source behind most of Newcastle’s goals back then.

With Almiron and Wilson out of form, they lacked the clinical finishing and were just awfully unlucky at times, with awry VAR and bad refereeing decisions and hitting the woodwork time and again. Another thing to note is that Saint-Maximin’s consistent injury problems meant Newcastle’s attack lacked that venomous unpredictability.

Mental fatigue also set in for the players as their rock-solid defence became slightly vulnerable to counter-attacks and conceded sloppy goals from mostly set-piece situations in key moments for some reason.

That’s until Howe decided to tweak things up a bit and implement a high-energy, high-risk, high-reward approach. They do not stop pressing, harassing, and harrying opposition teams when they are not in possession, but they started implementing clever tactical shapes, which required supreme levels of fitness but proved more effective.

The Magpies forced the opponents to play longer and denied any build-up from the back. The idea was to get the ball into the midfield third. Once the ball reaches there, Newcastle United look to overwhelm opponents with speed and numbers, hunting the ball in packs, tackling with intent, and attacking with varying angles and pressing patterns.

The idea is to stretch the opposition teams and leave them high and dry, more exposed and vulnerable, and win the ball back, which led to more direct attacks. Howe’s tactical adaptability ensured more frequent scoring by capitalising on turnovers and converting them into shots.

Howe also asked players to play unfavourable roles to make the team even more versatile. Such as 6ft 7 in. Burn was encouraged to foray forward and provide width at times and invert in the build-up on others.

To be more effective in possession when opponents target Guimaraes, No. 8’s Joelinton and Longstaff were put in rotational pivot roles. An all-Brazilian double-pivot was tried and tested; Willock and Joelinton formed an explosive left side of the attack for a while. Isak’s versatility was utilised to a full extent, and Wilson was forced to work on his pressing intensity and link-up play due to competition from the club-record signing.

Meanwhile, Jacob Murphy also enjoyed a good spell of games on the right flank in the injury absence of Almiron and provided a different dimension since he can progress, cross the ball, and shoot with either foot. When the Paraguayan speedster returned from injury, he was used more as a ball progressor than a sharpshooter who gets on the end of things before firing with his left foot. He delivered a sensational performance against Brighton in a key game.

However, there was always an element of risk with this approach: the team is in a constant state of motion, which can lead to mistakes, and now that you’re in the middle third, you’re much closer to your own goal. But then, this was the risk Howe was ready to take on, as he trusted in his players fight for each other mentality.

Apart from his flexible tactics, Howe’s in-game management and tactical changes were mostly spot on; several times towards the second half of the season, the Magpies went behind, looking out-of-sorts in the first half of matches, but came out a different team in the second period, outperforming their opponents and comfortably coming away with all three points.

The power of St. James’ Park

While the club’s on-field progress this season will undoubtedly help Newcastle United attract potential signings, and finances will also play a role, the importance of the St James’ Park atmosphere and the club’s supporters’ unique and close relationship with the players on the pitch cannot be overstated.

It has been critical to this year’s success. Indeed, a strong home form provided the bedrock of their success. Newcastle boast the fifth-best home record in the division, with 39 points collected from a possible 57 and just three defeats throughout the campaign.

You see, Newcastle-upon-Tyne is an area whose mood and prosperity can be directly linked to the success, or otherwise, of their football team. The Toon supporters call St. James’ Park the “Cathedral on the Hill” due to the ground looming over the city, visible from all directions. You just can’t escape the vibes. It’s a one-club town. And the stadium is legendary for its atmosphere and noise.

Unlike most modern stadiums, the stands are almost on top of the playing surface, creating an intense atmosphere that is hard to replicate elsewhere. The atmosphere inside St. James’ Park has undergone a seismic change since the club was taken over in October 2021. It’s electric inside, with the noise literally providing goosebumps, and that’s while watching from the TV set. People arrive at the stadium early, specifically to take in a positive atmosphere.

The incredible Wor Flags displays work so well to bring everyone together; it is genuinely an uplifting experience to watch the place become a rippling sea of black and white or a sea of shiny blue.

At St. James’ Park, Newcastle fans are not just spectators but an integral part of the game. In the words of Eddie Howe, they have a significant influence on the result of the game, as their energy and passion are crucial to his energy-sapping playing style and can spur the players on to victory.

The noise and passion from the stands can be hell for opposing teams, making it a daunting experience to play at St. James’ Park. Just ask England international goalkeeper and former Sunderland star Jordan Pickford, whose every touch instigates a raft of jeers and boos throughout the game.

Conversely, the fans’ unwavering support and encouragement for their team also gives the players a boost, making them feel like they have an extra edge over their opponents.

Even if Newcastle loses a home game— which, let me assure you, they don’t do very often, having lost just three games all season long — the players stay behind to appreciate the fans, and vice versa. It’s a supportive family atmosphere at the club rather than a toxic, negative one, which became such a theme under the previous regime.

Also, this year, with a lot of underperforming players under the previous regime experiencing an unprecedented redemption arc under Howe’s tutelage, there’s always a sense of excitement about which one of the old guard or local lads will step up to deliver the magic.

To be fair, the atmosphere among the home fans turned slightly tenser when Brighton halved the deficit and Leicester City almost scored with the last kick of the game in the last two games, but the noise increased to thunderous levels again after the two late goals removed any lingering doubts, while the draw against the Foxes sealed the deal.

Party time has arrived on Tyneside. The beaming smiles from the faces in the stands, matched by those on the faces of emotional Newcastle players at full-time, were an indication the sleeping giant has awakened from its slumber and the city is ready to welcome back the elites to the cathedral.

Fit and firing ruthless strikers

It’s well-documented that Newcastle struggled for goals in their mid-season slump. However, the narrative changed a lot towards the end of the season, with the Magpies becoming the fifth-highest scorers in the division, having netted more goals than Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur.

Since Howe started experimenting with Callum Wilson and Alexander Isak together, things started to open up again, and now that both have hit a rich vein of form, they are both elevating each other’s game, which is proving to be a nightmare for their opponents.

Howe initially tended to rotate his two strikers by introducing Isak as the main centre-forward rather than pairing them together. But this led to the United boss facing an awkward but luxurious juggling act as both strikers started scoring goals for fun.

Both are steely characters and want to lead the line from the start and be the main man up front, but ended up spurring each other on, especially Wilson, who is suddenly the most in-form striker in the world and now has 18 goals to his name, with 11 arriving in the months of April and May.

After a dry patch post-World Cup, the 31-year-old’s confidence is backfiring, and he has made a habit of scoring goals off the bench as a response to Howe leaving him on the bench.

Meanwhile, Isak has shown his quality since his return from injury, emerging as a rising star in the making. It was a tough first few months on Tyneside for the Swedish forward, who had to contend with a lengthy injury shortly after his club-record £63 million transfer.

He scored two goals in his first three appearances but split opinion at the start of his Toon career. However, he has really shown everyone what he is all about in the second half of the season and scored some really important goals in that incredible five-match winning run that sort of announced the Magpies’ season revival.

The Sweden international has scored 10 goals and provided one assist, although it should really be two after his jaw-dropping internet-breaking sensational run led to Jacob Murphy finding the net in the 4-1 victory over Everton, which only fuelled his comparisons to Thierry Henry.

He has well and truly taken the Premier League by storm in a Newcastle United shirt, and his brilliant performances have resulted in him being nominated for Premier League Young Player of the Season.

With Wilson and Isak both firing on all cylinders, there emerged a school of thought amongst the Newcastle fanbase: why not play them both together in front-two?

They have pushed each other to incredible heights, so much so that Howe eventually gave in to temptation and started the pair against the Gunners. Wilson was through the middle, while Isak was deployed on the left thanks to his silky dribbling and devastating pace.

It didn’t really work out at first, with Newcastle losing to Arsenal and dropping points against Leeds, but Howe obviously saw enough to go with it again at St. James’ Park against high-flying European hopefuls Brighton & Hove Albion in what was dubbed a must-win encounter in their top-four hunt. And boy, did they repay his faith in style, with Wilson bagging a late brace to settle down the nerves and Isak putting on an electrifying and tireless display.

Both strikers have been on a tear-up top in the last couple of months and have undoubtedly played a major part in Newcastle‘s bid to qualify for the Champions League.

Leave Comment


Welcome Back!

Login to your account below

Retrieve your password

Please enter your username or email address to reset your password.