Eddie Howe may be a success as Newcastle manager. He may not be. At this stage, his appointment, which was confirmed Monday, and whether it will work almost feels like a side issue amid the chaotic circumstances surrounding it. Perhaps a certain amount of confusion is natural when new owners come in to a club, but few takeovers have felt quite so unstructured as this.
It has been a month since the Saudi Arabian purchase of Newcastle. It took new ownership two weeks to sack Steve Bruce, who lingered for the 3–2 defeat to Tottenham. Graeme Jones has been in charge as a caretaker since and has managed a fortuitous 1–1 draw at Crystal Palace, a limp 3–0 home defeat to Chelsea and a 1–1 draw at Brighton, with Howe sitting next to Amanda Staveley in the directors' box for the latter. The result is that Newcastle, 11 games into the season, has still yet to win a game and/or keep a clean sheet. It is five points from safety with a very tricky December to come in terms of fixtures. There is a serious danger it could be well adrift by the time it is able to sign new players in January.
Howe has been available since leaving Bournemouth in the summer of 2020. He is somebody the Mike Ashley regime considered and rejected. If he had been remotely close to being the first choice for the Saudis, they could have gotten him four weeks ago. Indeed, when news of the takeover broke, he seemed an obvious candidate. He's bright, young, progressive and has Premier League experience. He was just the sort of person to take over in the short term. If he built on the promise of his time at Bournemouth, then he could be retained; if not, he could be replaced without being overly expensive.
All of that remains true. The problem is that having cycled through a long list of candidates—Lucien Favre, Brendan Rodgers, Frank Lampard, Rafa Benítez, Paulo Fonseca, Roberto Martinez—the board eventually landed on the man they wanted: Unai Emery. His greatest successes had come in Spain, although his time at Arsenal looks rather better in retrospect than it did at the time, but his experience and his capacity to organize made him an attractive candidate. The problem was that Newcastle then briefed the deal was almost done.
Given it had apparently not sought Villarreal’s permission to speak to its manager, that was bad enough, but what made it worse was that the story broke on the day Villarreal faced a crucial Champions League game against Young Boys. That put Emery in an impossible position and exacerbated concerns he already had about the club's leadership. He withdrew. There have been repeated suggestions from within the game about a lack of football knowledge among the leadership, which has often appeared split three ways: between the Staveleys, the Reubens and the Saudis.
Another puzzling detail about the new owners has emerged this week, with reports that the new owners have invested around $51 million for “daily running costs.” Quite what they are, given the club was self-sufficient under Ashley, is unclear but obviously raises questions.
So Howe arrives in a relegation battle at a club with no clear leadership structure where it has been made obvious he was not anywhere near the first choice. That is a difficult situation for any manager, however gifted. Jones, who has worked with Howe’s backroom team, is delighted by the appointment, calling Howe “elite, innovative and impressive." His football, he described, as “high tempo. Attacking football, with momentum. Very pragmatic. They would pay attention to the off the ball aspect and only being as good as how you defend.”
And that registers the first note of concern, because Bournemouth was not good at defending. Across five seasons in the Premier League, it conceded a total of 330 goals. Given Newcastle has leaked 23 in 10 matches so far, he may not be the man to sort out a defense that desperately needs organizing. The other major doubt is that Howe’s year and a half in Burnley, his one stint away from Bournemouth, ended disappointingly.
The fear must be that he was peculiarly well-attuned to Bournemouth and cannot thrive elsewhere. The flip side of that is that the job he did there across his two stints was extraordinary. For those who may dismiss him as the man who ultimately took Bournemouth down, there is the rebuttal that he took the club from League Two to spend five seasons in the Premier League with a very limited budget.
A month ago, Howe would have seemed like a very sensible appointment. He may still succeed, but the past month has made his job harder.
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