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First Team

Hot Off The Press: Newcastle United

Chris Waugh of The Athletic on United's season so far

25 February 2022

Newcastle sit 17th in the Premier League table at the time of speaking, four points clear of the relegation zone after winning three straight games for the first time since November 2018. What have you made of what you have seen since the turn of the year?

Since the turn of the year, Newcastle have certainly stepped it up a little bit, but the first few weeks of 2022 were difficult in some ways. The transfer window was taking place and they were trying to a lot of business; they signed Kieran Trippier early on and then Chris Wood came in, but they were knocked out of the FA Cup by League One Cambridge, which was embarrassing, then failed to beat Watford and that set alarm bells ringing. But in the three games subsequently, they have beaten three teams – two of whom are in and around them – lifted themselves out of the relegation zone, kept two clean sheets in that three-game winning run and are now five unbeaten. You can really see where they are starting to progress now. It has not necessarily been pretty in some of the games, but they have found a way to win and are managing games very well and are becoming very difficult to beat, which is exactly what was needed.

As was expected after the takeover, particularly given the club’s league position, over £80 million was spent on new players during the January transfer window? Do you think they have recruited well enough to survive the drop?

Newcastle spent more money than they intended to when the takeover first happened. I know they get called the ‘richest club in the world’, but while the plan is for them to spend money, it is also for them to grow organically, to an extent. I think they wanted to spend about half as much as they did in January but, given the position they have found themselves in at the turn of the year, I think that desperation, to an extent, facilitated what they did. They did not get all of their top targets and it would have been nice to have brought in one more attacking player, which they were trying to do towards the end of the window, but the business they did has improved the team in many ways. They brought in Trippier, who was a significant upgrade, and Matt Targett has come in and immediately settled. Dan Burn was impressive on his debut, too; they have needed a left-sided centre-back for four years and they have finally got one, albeit that he was not their first choice. Wood has not scored yet, but he has been a focal point up front, which they have required since Callum Wilson’s injury, so he has been important in that sense and Bruno Guimaraes has created a hell of a lot of excitement, even though he has only made handful of cameos off the bench. He is someone who Newcastle fans are really excited to see, given other clubs’ interest in him. All in all, it was a very good end to a window that was fraught and chaotic for large parts.

Kieran Trippier has been integral to the Magpies’ recent resurgence, with two goals in his two games so far. However, he has now been ruled out of action with a fractured metatarsal. How much of a blow will his absence be?

It is a big blow, there is no getting away from that. He has had a huge impact on and off the pitch. He captained the side against Aston Villa a few weeks ago in only his fifth league game for the club and scored back-to-back free-kicks but, more than that, he brings leadership and has made such an impression in the way that he is trying to raise standards. Newcastle don’t have a like-for-like replacement for him and, with Javier Manquillo also out injured, that is a blow. But the fact they have won the last three games and the fact that Trippier can still be involved off the pitch in terms of the way he can speak to people and elevate levels means that, hopefully, his absence can be mitigated. The whole team has gained confidence over the past few weeks, so the fact they have those three wins already lessens the blow slightly.

Which player should Brentford fans be keeping an eye on this Saturday?

I’ll go with the obvious one, which is Allan Saint-Maximin. The reason I say that is that he gives Newcastle a point of difference. In the last couple of matches, there have been points where Newcastle have been very good defensively, but have lacked something in attack; sometimes he has flattered to deceive, but then he is also the one who can spark them into life and create something out of nothing. The 4-3-3 system they are playing with at the moment means the defensive responsibilities, which he is not necessarily keen to carry out anyway, are lessened a little bit and the midfield can cover. When he gets going and he is in full flow, he is very difficult to stop - Frank Lampard described him as being “unplayable” in the second half of the win over Everton. When he is dribbling with the ball and gets in and around the area, he makes things happen and is crucial to Newcastle’s attacking output.

How is Eddie Howe likely to set up his side in west London?

He has settled on 4-3-3 and I think he is unlikely to shift from that. Martin Dubravka will be in goal and in Trippier’s absence, it will be interesting to see what they do to replace him; if Manquillo is not fit, I think Emil Krafth will come in a right-back; Targett was unable to play against his parent club Aston Villa so he will be the first choice left-back. In central defence, it will be two of Burn, Fabian Schar and Jamaal Lascelles, with a midfield three, at the moment, of Jonjo Shelvey, Joelinton and Joe Willock. The latter pair play as No 8s either side of Shelvey, which is keeping Guimaraes out of the team. And up front, Howe will have Wood through the middle, Ryan Fraser on the right and Saint-Maximin on the left.

The teams played out a thrilling 3-3 draw in the previous meeting back in November. What is your score prediction for this one?

I’m going to go for a 2-1 Newcastle win. They have got some momentum behind them and I think they will fancy their chances on the counter-attack.

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