The Hard Tackle takes a deep dive into Joelinton’s journey from a flop striker to a box-to-box midfield maestro, as he becomes the unlikely poster boy of Newcastle United.

Joelinton, who was formerly considered the epitome of an overpriced acquisition that failed to establish himself in the Premier League, has experienced a dramatic shift in position, function, mentality, and stature under new Newcastle United manager Eddie Howe.

The Brazilian’s relentless work rate has been harnessed by the former Bournemouth coach, who has moved transformed him from a striker to a central midfielder, and he has played admirably as a box-to-box midfielder. So, with that in mind, The Hard Tackle looks at Joelinton’s rapid rise to become one of Newcastle’s most crucial players in the new era under Saudi Arabian ownership.

Set up For Failure, Misfit, Mismanagement

The St. James’ Park faithful, who had watched Joelinton cut a frustrated figure in the lone centre-forward position week-in and week-out in the past two seasons, backed him to come good, more out of sympathy than anything else.

After all, Newcastle United forked out a club-record fee of £40 million to bring the Brazilian forward out of Hoffenheim during the 2019 summer transfer window before handing him the club’s iconic number nine jersey. They saw him having the potential to become Newcastle’s main goalscorer, following in the footsteps of great Newcastle hitmen like Alan Shearer, Les Ferdinand and Andy Cole.

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Joelinton seemed destined to match those great expectations when he scored the match-winning goal away to Tottenham Hotspur in the third game of his debut season. However, it soon became clear that Joelinton would not live up to the billing. In hindsight, not at least as an attacker, anyway.

It became even more clear when it took him until January to score his second goal, and he ended his debut season with just two goals to his name from 38 Premier League appearances. Joelinton was not just pricey at this stage, but he was also considered one of the worst failures in Premier League history.

There are several mind-boggling elements to the Joelinton transfer which is still one of the most mystifying conspiracy theories in football, at least on Tyneside. Former owner Mike Ashley never wanted to open his checkbook when Rafael Benitez was the club manager, but then he spent a whopping £40 million on Joelinton, only to hand the Brazilian to a defensive-minded coach in Steve Bruce, who had no clue what to do with him.

The job profile of Newcastle’s lone striker was a thankless one, stranded in a different dimension to his teammates and operating in a side with the least possession and passing stats in the Premier League, feeding largely on scraps every now and then.

Despite months of evidence to the contrary, Bruce felt that Joelinton would eventually thrive as a lone centre-forward due to his size and strength. But it was not to be, since he was never exactly prolific back in Austria or Germany.

 

He was one of the more predictable failures, having played only 29 games for Hoffenheim in a wide-forward role and scoring seven goals. Joelinton spent two seasons on loan in Austria, netting 15 goals in 60 games for Rapid Wien; not exactly the kind of fancy numbers one would expect from a £40 million striker tasked with saving Newcastle’s sinking relegation ship.

Using him in the wrong role all but guaranteed he would be labelled as a flop, and with Newcastle being in constant relegation peril under then-coach Bruce, things went from bad to worse, as Joelinton became an easy-to-point-out scapegoat for their misfortunes.

It was always unrealistic to expect the then-22-year-old to hit the ground running straight away. But amid all the pressure and stakes in place, Joelinton was only a young man who was experiencing a new culture, having to learn a new language and a new trade while adapting to the physicality of the Premier League. And carrying the famous No 9 shirt weighed heavily on him.

For a footballer, confidence is everything, and it was shattered to bits in the case of Joelinton. He did exhibit some flashes of brilliant hold-up play, a good dribble, touch or turn, or when putting himself about the pitch. Equally, he was mauled in the mainstream media, which never really wanted to point out Bruce’s shortcomings as a manager, and blamed Joelinton for poor touches, movement, not making striker runs or darts in behind, and so on.

From zero to hero: Joelinton the heartbeat of Newcastle’s resurgence under Eddie Howe

Joelinton let away the number nine shirt to kick off the 2021-22 season. That went to Callum Wilson, as the Brazilian took up the number seven jersey. A weight had suddenly been lifted off his shoulders, and he enjoyed a promising start to the season with some really strong cameos. Barring Saint-Maximin, he was perhaps one of the Magpies’ better players before Steve Bruce was stripped of his duties.

But then came Eddie Howe, the first manager to take charge of St James’ Park under the new Saudi-backed ownership, and everything changed. The former Bournemouth manager brought a lot to the North-East: optimism, hope, a competent set of coaches, and an upgraded Joelinton, ready to please the new boss and establish himself as a part of Newcastle’s future aspirations.

The Toon manager straightaway singled out Joelinton for praise in his first pre-match press conference, and since then it’s been a perfect match. Joelinton was deployed on the right side of a 3-4-3 formation for Howe’s first Newcastle game, a 3-3 draw with Brentford.

The 25-year-old Brazilian looked to be a different beast, with newfound confidence and a noticeable improvement in fitness to cap off a man-of-the-match performance with a well-taken goal. Howe had noticed those qualities, but even his plans did not include using him as a No. 8.

Joelinton’s true restoration journey, though, began last November with a bit of fortune in disguise when, on a cold dark night, in a moment of defiance, utter silence fell at St James’ Park after an early red card in a crucial relegation six-pointer with Norwich.

However, out of all the doom and gloom, emerged Joelinton as a box-to-box midfielder, and he pressed relentlessly, shielded the ball using his vast frame, and showed the flair, skill, and cheekiness to go down under a challenge when pressure needed relieving.

He impressed sufficiently for Howe to give him another chance in subsequent games, but it wasn’t until a dominant performance against Manchester United that he fully established himself as a midfield enforcer.

To say he was a colossus in that game would be an understatement, as he pressed the opposition off the park, truly ran the show by controlling the tempo of the game when in possession, and displayed grit and determination to win the ball back.

Since then, the industrious Brazilian has only gotten better in his new position and hasn’t looked back. He was showing up for the ball, demanding more, constantly on the charge, destructing opposition play, getting into positions to make key interceptions and covering for his more adventurous teammates.

His psychical presence and hold-up play had never been questioned, but with confidence, he had begun to have a significant impact in the games as well as his technical ability. A cumbersome but nonetheless competent collection of Brazilian mayhem that the opposition can’t seem to shake off.

He wins most of his 50-50s, ground duels, and always seems to end up on top. While performances have improved on the pitch, so does his boiling temper. Joelinton’s approach became more tenacious and bullish as a result of Howe’s aggressive footballing philosophy.

He’s also demonstrated his versatility by having an excellent game out wide, bagging a brace in a 3-0 win against Norwich late in the season, where he was serenaded by the visiting Toon Army. Before another stellar showing in Newcastle’s finest performance of the season in the 2-0 win against Arsenal, where he man-handled and smothered the whole Gunners midfield all by himself.

A man reborn with a fresh sense of purpose, he went from being a laughing stock striker to midfield maestro; from a Premier League flop to one of the most consistent performers in the top-flight; from the useless No. 9 to almost club’s MVP; and from the first player expected to be shifted out under new regime to the centrepiece/face of Newcastle’s ambitious future plans.

A Genuine No. 7, Midfield General

Joelinton was a key man in the Hoffenheim team that employed one of the most intense press in Bundesliga, polished by Julian Nagelsmann’s tactical prowess, and often drew comparisons to fellow Brazilian and Hoffenheim graduate Roberto Firmino for their exploits in the second striker role.

The Bayern Munich head coach even described the Brazilian as “an animal” and “a machine”, and Howe appears to have recognized that. The Brazilian’s relentless running off-the-ball, his strength and ability to dispossess opponents, as well as being a good ball-carrier, were tailor-made for Howe’s pressing style.

Newcastle’s newfound aggression through midfield and a higher defensive line have resulted in a more penetrating form of attack as they now started to win the midfield battles, with Joelinton and Joe Willock functioning as box-to-box midfielders, while Jonjo Shelvey was anchoring the play from behind the pair.

Joelinton served as Newcastle’s chief ball-winner, making opposition ball carriers unpleasant in the same way that a midfield workhorse would. But Joelinton was also able to drive Newcastle up the field on the break, playing as a ball carrier box-to-box presence, thanks to his long strides, technique and ability to find space and wriggle out of tight situations.

Then comes the million-dollar question: Is Joelinton having a Mohamed Diame-type season, a purple patch of 12-15 games in which he’s rediscovered form, or whether Howe sees him as a major asset in the future, a strong, physical frame to complement Bruno Guimaraes’ classy playmaker attributes.

Metrics prove the latter, Joelinton feeds on defensive tenacity, a kind of unyielding selfless attitude to disrupt the opposition moves and drive his side forwards. This shift in position has resulted in Joelinton receiving the ball further deeper into the field, or on the left. The heatmap below shows how his touches evolved from the start to the end of the season.

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He did start the current season playing more forward under Bruce, slightly skewing the picture, but his adapted role is still visible. His athleticism, close control and ability to cover ground are also shown by the increased number of additional touches he is having down the left.

Such is the confidence coursing through Joelinton that he has started to showcase some oozed moments of genuine flair and outright audacity during the games. He has also shown a drive to get into the box that was previously lacking in his game. A newfound willingness to gamble by running into the area, or at the back-post, benefited him significantly in the game against Norwich, where he bagged a brilliant brace.

While physicality is an important aspect of his game, the midfielder uses it in a number of ways, including as a particularly efficient aerial outlet, as seen by his 3.73 aerial duels won per 90, which places him in the top 2% of midfielders in the stat. He is also a valuable asset when it comes to playing the ball or even drifting out wide to combine with Saint-Maximin and is largely press resistant.

FBref

He also has a good understanding of the game, reflected by his decent number of blocks. While his other defensive numbers can be deemed as average when compared to established midfield enforcers, they will only get better as he gains more and more experience in the position.

Also, he has more attacking involvement, making it incredibly difficult to classify him as a No. 6 or No. 8. For the time being, perhaps his jersey number 7 might be an accurate tactical profile for him, which is a huge coincidence that no one would have predicted when his jersey number was changed at the start of the season.

As for Howe, he stated in an interview that he believes the Brazilian’s versatility is vital to the team’s evolution: “I’m very open-minded about his position, “Joe can play as a centre forward, a second striker, wide and as a No 8. It’s great to have players with that versatility — I wish I had a few more.”

And rightly so, a player with the flexibility and tactical understanding to operate comfortably can be a powerful tool to have for a coach since it allows to make tactical tweaks to change the complexion of the game without using substitution or overloading one side to contain a tricky opponent. Joelinton is that handy player for Howe in the current Newcastle setup.

Joelinton’s suitability in the new position is further supported by the below graphic from Squawka (22 Apr), which shows that the Brazilian, along with Declan Rice, is one of only two players in the division to have over 30+ contributions in five different defensive midfield statistics this season.

 

This reading is even more impressive considering the fact that Joelinton only moved into midfield six months ago, as opposed to Rice, who began the season as an established holding midfielder. This also goes to show the Brazilian’s tremendous potential to develop further if he makes a permanent transition to the midfield position next season.

No one deserves more praise for Joelinton’s transformation than the man himself

Joelinton has been one of the stories of Newcastle’s season, highlighting how much of the club’s progression can be attributed to Howe’s staff’s coaching methods. He deservedly won the Newcastle’s Player of the Season award and If the Premier League had a category of ‘Most Improved Player of the Season’, Joelinton would undoubtedly be one of the prime contenders to receive it.

While Howe has to take the credit for taking the gamble of putting him in that midfield role, much of the credit should go to Joelinton. He was mocked by opposition fans as well as some of his own, but his work ethic, mental strength, and resolve to prevail in the face of adversity have been nothing short of astonishing and the midfield revelation has now well and truly made his doubters eat a humble pie as he begins to justify his high price tag.

Then came the reports that Joelinton has hired Brazilian analytics company Outlier FC to help him turn around his Newcastle career. This further epitomises his devotion to improvise in his new role. Obviously, this has a positive impact on his performances, better tactical understanding, awareness of spaces and implementation have made him an indispensable part of Newcastle’s press.

And Howe emphasised this following a hard-fought 2-1 victory over Brighton and Hove Albion, saying, “The tactical delivery is always going to be the hardest for him in that role, but again was of the highest level. A superb performance.”

Of course, there has been much chatter about big-money additions, but Joelinton is the best example of the type of feel-good factor around St James’ Park these days, where fans are ready to embrace anyone who gives his all to the Black-and-white.

And it’s not just his battling displays on the pitch that has made him a huge favourite among the Toon faithful, but it’s the Brazilian’s personality, character, passion and desire to do well for the team that has created an attachment with Newcastle supporters. The bond was visible when he ran 90-yards across to the Brentford Community Stadium to pump fists and roar with the away support.

Not to mention, while he has etched himself into Geordie folklore for such a dramatic turnaround, the fans have incorporated his name into their rich songbook as a gesture of appreciation, composing a catchy chant that is now serenaded practically on every matchday. Joelinton is now enjoying his football again as the black cloud that hung over Newcastle has finally lifted.

As fickle-minded social media football fans have become these days, Joelinton’s resurgence teaches us all an important lesson: don’t write off or judge a young player or manager with a high price tag too quickly; there is always a talent inside that can shine under the right circumstances.

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