28 Aug Will Champions League campaign be too much, too soon for Newcastle?
Eddie Howe has done a remarkable job as Newcastle United manager since taking charge at St James’ Park in November 2021, but his over-achievement in the role is only going to make his life more difficult this season. Credit in the bank counts for little where Newcastle are now operating.
Three games into the new Premier League season and Newcastle have already suffered two defeats, albeit against Manchester City and Liverpool. Their hopes of improving on last season’s fourth-place finish have been put into sharp perspective. Those losses mean Newcastle have won just two of their last eight Premier League games, or five in 12, so the trend is beginning to set alarm bells ringing.
There is no time to admire the view when you approach the summit of the Premier League because nobody else is going to stand around and wait while you enjoy your surroundings. Ten-man Liverpool’s dramatic late win at St James’ on Sunday, when substitute Darwin Núñez scored twice to turn Newcastle’s 1-0 into a 2-1 defeat, was a brutal example of how tough it can be when taking on the best teams in Europe.
In many respects, this week is a time for celebration at Newcastle, despite Sunday’s loss. Thursday will see the club return to the Champions League group stage for the first time since 2002 when the draw is made for this season’s competition.
Due to their absence from European competition in recent years, Newcastle’s don’t have their own UEFA co-efficient and that means they will be in Pot 4 in the draw. They could end up in a group of giants with Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and AC Milan. Plenty of glamour, perhaps, but Newcastle’s ambitious owners won’t be regarding Champions League participation as a fun-filled distraction from domestic competition.
Howe won’t be expected to win the Champions League this season — such a target would be totally unrealistic at this stage of the team’s development. But having a team in the competition is a coup for the club’s Saudi Arabian owners and they will want Newcastle to be competitive, regardless of the opponents they may face. And that is what will make the months ahead so challenging for Howe and his team. The former Bournemouth manager has delivered Champions League football well ahead of schedule, but that is the benchmark he has now set and there can be no backwards steps.
What lies ahead will be the ultimate test of his management and coaching skills. But despite a £125 million summer spending spree on Sandro Tonali, Harvey Barnes and Tino Livramento, Newcastle could be set for a rude awakening in the Champions League. Howe has to prove himself capable of taking the step up to competing against the elite coaches and so do his players. It is no longer simply about performing in the Premier League.
Bridging the gap between expectations and reality is difficult. If Newcastle’s owners are prepared to give Howe and his team a free hit by seeing this season as a point on a Champions League learning curve, they will be displaying more patience and perspective than most clubs at this level. Ultimately, Howe will be expected to deliver Champions League football again next season and that is why the challenge facing the manager is so much tougher than anything he has taken on before.
Newcastle’s start to the Premier League season has already shown how unforgiving the division can be. Next up is a trip to Brighton & Hove Albion, the league’s top scorers so far with nine goals in three games, so the euphoria of the opening-day win at home to Aston Villa could soon be washed away if another negative result comes at the Amex Stadium.
Recovering from an indifferent start to the season, at the same time as dealing with the intensity of the Champions League, will be new territory for Howe and Newcastle. Even well-established teams such as Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea have found that to be an impossible balancing act in recent seasons.
Newcastle’s squad lacks the experience required to deal with what is coming down the track. The same applies to Howe. Financial fair play restrictions have limited Newcastle’s ability to spend bigger this summer, so while they have invested wisely in emerging talent, their squad still looks to be lacking in depth and Champions League pedigree.
Had Howe guided the team to a top-six finish and a place in the Europa League last season, Newcastle’s progression would have been steady and still impressive. It would have set a clear path to the next step of Champions League qualification this time around. But by taking a giant leap last season and skipping at least one stage of their plan to joining Europe’s elite, Newcastle might just be about to experience a reality check.
It has all been positive momentum so far for Howe at Newcastle, but the reward for that will only be greater pressure to deliver in more difficult circumstances. He now has to prove he is up to it.