CRAIG HOPE: Newcastle must prepare for phase two after chapter closes

CRAIG HOPE: Newcastle’s Carabao Cup defeat felt like a brilliant first chapter closing, and Eddie Howe and the owners must prepare for phase two of the Magpies’ transformation, with Alexander Isak’s best role still unclear and Callum Wilson looking jaded

  • Newcastle have rose under Eddie Howe but now they must really press on
  • Sunday’s League Cup final defeat had the feeling of a chapter closing for Howe
  • Now they must invest in the right areas to close the gap on those at the top

As ever in football, it comes back to players. Levels, they say in the game. A team can only outperform the collective value of its parts for so long. There is a point where David has to put down the stones and pick up some pound coins.

Remarkably, Leicester City were greater than their whole for a full season and won the Premier League in 2016. Add Newcastle to that exclusive list of those who, for so long, have defied the odds to the point of favouritism.

For the entirety of 2022 they rewrote the book of expected form. Now, the pages aren’t turning so quickly. On them, there are only questions, where once Eddie Howe had answers. It is a sad reality of this sport but the one book where solutions are most likely to be found is that in which the cheques reside.

That may sound rich to those who will point out that Newcastle, under Saudi owners, have already spent nearly £250million across three transfer windows. But by inheriting a pile of rubble from former owner Mike Ashley, that investment was needed to rebuild the foundations of a football team. Now it is time for a second floor. Phase two, they will call it internally.

In beating relegation last season and making a domestic cup final this, Sunday’s defeat by Manchester United at Wembley had the strange feel of a chapter closing. Of course, there is a great deal still to play for in the coming months, not least European qualification.

Newcastle’s Carabao Cup defeat must instigate a new chapter of building under Eddie Howe (left)

Aleksander Isak (middle top raised) became the club’s record transfer when he joined in the summer but his role within the team is unclear

But the nature of the loss – the team with better players in the big moments won – should be used as a signpost for a change of direction. Players. Levels.

Howe has done a tremendous job, the best of the previous calendar year. He has coached and cajoled his players and taken them to places even they did not believe possible. It has been awesome to witness.

They have been to the well so many times and, on every occasion, have turned water in wine. Champagne, however, is probably beyond them. For the sound of popping corks, they must first make a big noise in the transfer market.

A specialist left back, a centre half, two central midfielders and, arguably, improvement in every position across the front three is needed. Newcastle have not scored more than once in a league game since Boxing Day.

Against Man United they weaved their pretty patterns but were unsightly in applying the finishing touch. Callum Wilson put his body and soul into making England’s World Cup squad and, perhaps unsurprisingly, has looked physically and mentally shattered since. He is not so much a shadow of his former self, more a chalked outline.

If you gave Allan Saint-Maximin said chalk, he would produce a jumble of squiggles, lines and wires crossed, so erratic is his part in a team built on cohesion and repetition. 

But therein, too, lies part of the problem. Newcastle have become all too predictable in the final third.

Club-record signing Alexander Isak, at £60m, was supposed to be the game-changer. But he has been asked to change his game so many times – starter, substitute, striker, winger, number 10 – to the point of confusion. 

Newcastle’s players just couldn’t match the quality put on display by Man United at Wembley

Man United’s defensive midfielder Casemiro showed Newcastle the type of player they need to move forward

Newcastle co-owner Amanda Staveley (white coat) will have to help Howe to further reinforce his squad

Howe must work out what he wants from the Swede and determine a way of extracting it from him, as he has with the likes of Miguel Almiron and Joelinton. Even that duo, though – so brilliant under Howe – fall into a bracket whereby you wonder if upgrades, at least in terms of a strongest XI, will be considered.

Man United’s Casemiro was man-of-the-match in the Carabao Cup final and it will not be lost on Howe, nor indeed the owners, that he is the type of player they need above all else. A holding midfielder with bark, bite and pedigree. 

Targets are being identified, and the likes of Everton’s Amadou Onana and Ruben Neves of Wolves are among many who have been mentioned.

But those lists are long, as are the number of questions facing Howe and his players during the remainder of this campaign. The biggest – have they got it within them to find another level? Again.

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