Eddie Howe bullish before Newcastle face Manchester City litmus test
Eddie Howe has always harboured a dogmatic streak so it should come as no surprise that not even the prospect of facing Manchester City on Sunday can shake his conviction that fortune favours the brave.
Newcastle’s manager confirms that, given a hypothetical choice between settling for a draw before kick-off and trying to beat the champions, he would never countenance accepting the first option.
Undeterred by a record of 12 defeats in 12 games against City with Bournemouth and Newcastle, Howe dug his philosophical toes in.
“This might sound funny but I’ve never, ever had the mindset that I’d take a draw before a game,” says a manager who saw City win 4-0 at St James’ Park and 5-0 at the Etihad last season. “I just couldn’t do it, I’m not made that way. I’ve never, never gone into a game thinking: ‘I’d take a draw here.’”
For all his enduring front-foot principles, Newcastle are significantly tighter defensively than his old Bournemouth side. Bolstered by Nick Pope’s arrival in goal from Burnley, they have maintained clean sheets while taking four points from their two opening games, against Nottingham Forest and Brighton.
Erling Haaland and his City friends promise to present Sven Botman, Newcastle’s new centre-half, with a sterner test and Howe says he could be persuaded to make a rare switch from his preferred back four at St James’ Park on Sunday.
A change to a central defensive trinity could also accommodate Botman, Dan Burn and Fabian Schär while liberating Kieran Trippier and Matt Targett to operate as wing-backs. Burn excelled after arriving from Brighton in January but, like Botman, he is left-footed. The consensus is that the Dutchman – a £35m signing from Lille – and Switzerland’s Schär make a more balanced partnership in Howe’s 4-3-3 configuration. Shape shifting to 3-4-3 would enable Newcastle to retain Burn’s commanding influence.
“I’m tempted to play lots of ways,” Howe says. “Getting the balance between attacking and defending is key in these sorts of games.”
This particular match represents a litmus test of Newcastle’s progress since their Saudi Arabian-led takeover and Howe’s appointment late last year. At the time the team had failed to win a game all season under their previous manager, Steve Bruce, and looked relegation bound but, assisted by a £90m January spending spree, Howe guided them to an assured 11th-place finish. Now his overlords in Riyadh and Jeddah will be keen to see tangible progress.
“Sunday’s game is the ultimate test for me,” says Howe, who after spending £60m on Botman, Pope and Targett this summer remains in the market for another striker and a midfielder. “Games against Manchester City and Liverpool are the real barometer of our quality.
“We want to narrow that gap between us and the top teams. I thought last season’s games against City were tighter than they looked on paper.”
Now Pep Guardiola has added Haaland to his attacking armoury and Pope must trust that an outstanding performance against the formidable Norway striker would not merely confirm his place on England’s flight to Doha and November’s World Cup but offer Gareth Southgate pause for thought about Jordan Pickford’s status as his first-choice goalkeeper.
Howe tends to be circumspect in dispensing opinions but does not discourage the idea that Pope could dislodge his Everton counterpart, while also leapfrogging Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsdale.
“Everyone’s frustrated we haven’t been able to sign more players,” says Howe, whose room for transfer-market manoeuvre is limited by the need to remain within financial fair play restrictions. “But Nick’s been brilliant for us. I’m sure he has ambitions to push Jordan Pickford. When you’re in his position, you’re close to playing.
“You’ve got to reach and strain to try to make that jump and, with the start he’s made here, he’s done himself no harm.
“His ability to claim crosses and shot-stopping are of the highest level and he’s distributed the ball really well. He’s very cute and clever with how he does it. He’s made a big impact.”