Paul Merson’s Newcastle United U-turn proves Simon Jordan and Chris Sutton were wrong
It felt like Eddie Howe was already facing an uphill battle when he was named as Newcastle United’s new manager earlier this season.
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Club insiders have suggested Howe was the first choice for some members of the PIF-led consortium after making a favourable impression with his knowledge of the squad and his plans going forward.
Nevertheless, an awkward and avoidable situation played out with the Magpies owners making a very public, but ultimately unsuccessful play for Villarreal boss Unai Emery.
Once that move fell through, their focus turned back towards Howe and the former Bournemouth manager was officially named as Steve Bruce’s successor on the 8th November - almost three weeks after his predecessor had left the club.
External doubts had been cast on Howe’s credentials before the deal had even been signed.
Speaking on TalkSPORT, former Crystal Palace owner Simon Jordan said: “In an ideal world they like to be the most important person in the room but he will be the most important person in the room when he gets in the job, if he does a good job for them.
“But the fact that he is being given an opportunity, which I am not entirely sure he merits, will be more of a concern for Eddie Howe because the opportunity will be significant.
“With respect, Eddie Howe’s last achievement was to get Bournemouth relegated and seemingly to not have the chutzpah to go and manage Celtic.
“So, all of those things do not give him the same credentials as Unai Emery and we will all have to accept that.”
Former Premier League winner Chris Sutton added his name the list of pundits questioning whether Howe’s preferred style would match what looked like an unbalanced Newcastle squad.
The former Blackburn Rovers striker told BBC Five Live’s Monday Night Club: “I think if you look at his managerial record, the way that his team played at Bournemouth I thought they were a breath of fresh air, he lost it in the end.
“His recruitment the last couple of years at Bournemouth wasn’t that impressive. He’s got to get his recruitment right in January, but it’s about staying up, isn’t it?
“And it will be interesting, the brand of football that Newcastle play under Eddie, especially early on, because do Newcastle have the players where they can really play an expansive game? I’m not so sure they do.”
Both comments, it should be said, were not without merit.
Dealing with facts, Howe did oversee a relegation at Bournemouth and some of his moves in the transfer market were questionable.
But by his own admission, after over a decade of dragging the Cherries from the brink of going out of the Football League to mixing it in the elite with the Premier League, Howe’s 14-month absence from the dugout had left him “refreshed, energised, and ready to start work”.
Whilst admittedly starting from a pretty low base given his predecessor’s relationship with the club’s supporters and the abysmal points record accrued in the early part of the season, any progress, no matter how small, would feel significant.
A first point was gained at home to Norwich City after a planned St James Park debut against Brentford ten days earlier was disrupted by a positive Covid-19 test.
A first win came four days later as Callum Wilson struck the only goal in a tense and nervy affair against relegation rivals Burnley.
The highs that met that crucial win were followed by predicable defeats at Leicester City and Liverpool, as well as a 4-0 home reverse against leaders Manchester City.
But that St James Park defeat against Pep Guardiola’s side remains the last time Howe’s Newcastle were left empty-handed in a Premier League game.
Successive 1-1 home draws against Manchester United and Watford could and should have delivered a more lucrative reward - but the on-pitch progress was evident as subtle off-field changes made an impact.
The January transfer window was always seen as a key moment in the battle for survival and the club’s owners backed Howe - who acted as a de-facto Director of Football during the month - with a £90million outlay on Kieran Trippier, Dan Burn, Chris Wood, Bruno Guimaraes and Matt Targett.
Whilst it is easy to put Newcastle’s progress down to the significant January investment, Howe deserves credit for adapting his usual style of play and preferred formation to fit the squad he inherited and improved.
Many will point to the arrival of Trippier, Bruno et al as a turning point - yet ignore the all-too-clear improvement Howe has overseen in a whole host of players that struggled under his predecessor.
Ryan Fraser now looks like the player Arsenal were ready to pay a significant fee for during his time at Bournemouth and Joe Willock is back to the form that saw Newcastle supporters commit the cardinal sin of falling in love with a loan player.
Fabian Schar is producing his best football since he played under Rafa Benitez and Jonjo Shelvey is commanding, leading and dictating as many thought he should do on a regular basis.
Then there is Joelinton.
The number nine that was never a number nine is now an all-action midfielder that should never have been a midfielder.
Yet it fits, by hook or by crook, the Brazilian is arguably Howe’s most undroppable player and he brings energy, intensity and drive to a midfield that had been lacking in all three qualities prior to his unlikely transition.
The unbeaten run will be severely tested by away days at Chelsea and Everton over the coming week - but Thursday night’s hard-earned win at Southampton has taken Howe’s side even closer to survival.
The Magpies are playing with purpose, positivity and, most importantly, confidence - all factors that mean the outlook is far brighter than when Howe took charge with United at the bottom of the table with just six points and no wins from 11 games.
Howe is averaging 1.63 points per game from the 16 Premier League fixtures he has overseen at Newcastle - a significant improvement on the 0.55 points per game racked up by Bruce and caretaker manager Graeme Jones over the first 11 games of the campaign.
The statistics back up the case for the improvement under Howe.
Average goals scored (up from 1.09 to 1.25) and conceded (down from 2.09 to 1.38) are heading in the right direction and that improvement has continued since the turn of the year.
Howe’s United have conceded just five goals in eight Premier League games (0.6 per game) and have scored 13 (1.63 per game) during the same period, despite the absence of top goalscorer Callum Wilson.
Progress, despite the early doubts of outsiders, is there for all to see.
Perhaps the turnaround is best summed up by another pundit.
In the aftermath of the appointment, Sky’s Paul Merson suggested Newcastle supporters would not be happy with Howe being installed as the club’s new manager.
Speaking ahead of Saturday’s win against Brighton, the former Arsenal and England star said “Eddie Howe has done a great job since taking charge.
“I think he’ll be kept at the club and backed adequately this summer once again after an impressive haul in the January transfer window.”
The tune has changed - and it’ll be music to the ears of Newcastle United supporters.