Should Eddie Howe shoulder the blame for the current Newcastle United injury crisis?
After a commendable start to the season for the lads, which has included amassing a collection of scalps from the likes of PSG, Man City, Man United and Arsenal, Eddie Howe now faces possibly the biggest challenge of his tenure.
The injury list is at crisis point, with multiple players in important positions out (and to me this was the primary reason why we lost to Bournemouth last weekend).
While we can curse our luck, is there more to it than mere bad fortune?
There are 12 players in total out of action now, with one of those of course being Sandro Tonali, who infamously is serving a 10-month ban for breaking gambling rules, and is currently under investigation by the FA for the same offence.
No manager can legislate for Tonali’s situation, so there was no fault there, and injury crises are of course part and parcel of football, which every team experiences at some point.
What is within the control of the manager, however, is to choose the footballing philosophy they pursue, the training regime they implement, and player selection across competitions. In Eddie Howe, we have a manager who plays an attacking, high risk / high-reward brand of football backed up by an extreme work ethic. He notoriously also puts on gruelling training sessions, always demanding a lot from his players (and rightly so).
However, while these are positives, and were qualities distinctly missing from the dark days of Bruce and Ashley, there are drawbacks too. As I noted, the style is high reward (it earned us a fourth place finish and we compete in every match and competition), but also high risk too, and that risk is injuries and burnout.
It is the same with Howe’s mentality: his relentless winning mentality is an asset but is not without cost. So far this season, some of our best wins have come in the cup competitions. I just wonder whether – at this early stage in our development – this has been the correct approach. This season was always going to be testing, what with balancing being competitive in the league as well as managing our return to the Champions League, in the ‘group of death’ no less. The last thing we need is a depleted squad, and while it is impossible to know whether we would have been in the same position with more rotation than we have done, it has been risky relying on so many core players for extended periods.
As for our approach, that fiery, passionate style is what identifies the team, but once again this can cause problems, in the form of yellow cards. As of today, we are one of the worst offenders in the league, tied in fourth place with Sheffield United with 33 yellow cards. Gordon is the second most carded player in the league, having already served a suspension for five yellow cards (he now has six), and it is highly likely we will lose him again later in the season. On hitting the milestone of 10 yellow cards, the ban is then extended to two games, and that is a long time to lose such a crucial player in what could be a pivotal moment in the season.
The Arsenal game was a prime example of ill discipline. We emotionally overreacted to a bad tackle from Havertz, and from that point never came down from that height, finishing the game with five players in the book. Most notably, Bruno got his fifth yellow card of the season, which left Howe with yet another key player out for the Bournemouth game.
Sean Longstaff, another integral player, is one game from a ban, in a period where we need all the help we can get. The other players closest to a ban are Trippier (three), Burn, Lascelles, and Schar (all two).
Fortunately, most of the yellow cards have been fairly spread out so far, and we have managed to escape without any red cards (although we have been lucky with this on occasion).
In theory, we could make it to the January transfer window – which we surely will look to restore depth to the squad with fresh faces – with only a couple more suspensions. Longstaff and Trippier (three and four bookings respectively), are highly likely to be missed. As for the group on two yellow cards apiece, hopefully they can play clean until that point. However that situation pans out, these suspensions affect us in the short-term and the long-term, and it is one aspect of our game that we need to cut out.
Ultimately, Eddie Howe knows best and I trust him completely, but nobody is beyond constructive criticism.
The disciplinary issue is a problem and it is something that Howe needs to address. And as for the style of play, Howe should not be expected to compromise on his principles because it has worked so well for us, but perhaps taking the foot off the gas just a little bit, particularly in domestic cup competitions, would prevent an injury headache from becoming a full-blown crisis.
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