Eddie Howe’s relentless, high-risk, high-reward approach has led the North East club to the brink of Champions League qualification
Newcastle United are on the verge of securing a place in the Champions League by playing a breathless style of football – a relentless, high-energy, high-risk, high-reward approach.
Newcastle do not stop pressing, harassing and harrying opposition teams when they are not in possession, while their front foot, all-action style also requires supreme levels of fitness, as well as clever tactical shapes.
Telegraph Sport has spoken to coaching staff and players to discover the work put in on the training ground that has turned Newcastle into arguably the most energetic side in the Premier League.
Newcastle United’s ability to put pressure on teams deep inside their own half and win the ball high up the pitch was a complete shift in tactical approach implemented on Howe’s instruction last summer.
They have become one of the best in Europe at doing so, putting pressure on their opponents and attacking, down both flanks and through the middle, in a perpetual state of motion.
It can leave teams feeling dizzy and confused, but it is not the patterns of play or the angles of their pressing that breaks teams, it is the fact it does not stop. Newcastle just keep coming at you until your resistance is shattered, physically and mentally.
It is like trying to contain a swarm of black and white wasps with each player packing a sting. They are strong and tough. They can be spiteful too, relishing physical contact.
At the end of last season, Howe told coaching staff that he wanted to completely change the way the team played. It was, according to sources, a high-risk move, but Howe was adamant he wanted to give Newcastle supporters a team that excited them.
After three years of Rafa Benitez pragmatism, where Newcastle were relentlessly drilled to learn to play without the ball and looked to hit teams with swift and direct counter attacks, Newcastle players had become accustomed to sitting deep, defending their own area, often with a back five, and looking to lure teams on to them.
That system was largely maintained by Steve Bruce in his two full seasons at St James’ Park. The two managers, despite vastly differing in popularity on Tyneside, collected precisely the same number of points over two full seasons with this method.
Howe initially stuck to the same sort of plan to avoid relegation last season, but this year they have blown teams away with their high-energy football. The swarm attack era was born.
Fitter and stronger
To play the swarm attack system, Newcastle’s players have to be fitter and stronger than almost all of their rivals. That is easier said than done in the Premier League. Newcastle are not the only team that tries to play on the front foot. This is where Howe has excelled, supported by his coaching staff, Jason Tindall, Graeme Jones and Stephen Purches. One of his first appointments when he arrived was a new head of sports science Dan Hodges.
There is an unofficial mantra among the coaching team – there is fit and then there is “Howe fit.” Players like Bruno Guimarares, Alexander Isak and most recently Anthony Gordon, who all arrived without a full pre-season behind them, have initially struggled to pick up the pace of the team.
They have had to be brought up to speed before starting regularly. This is evidence of the gruelling nature of the training, but also the toll it takes on players on a match day.
Newcastle will outfight you and outrun you if you let them, the speed with which they move back into defensive shape as impressive as the speed and fluidity of their offence.
Asked if some players had struggled to meet the demands of Howe’s regime, Newcastle’s manager replied: “Definitely, I’d say. I’ve got to compliment the sports science team. Dan Hodges leads the department and I’ve worked with him for a long time.
“We are very in tune with each other in what we feel we need and how we need to work the players. Hopefully the players can see the benefits of that hard work.”
Brutal pre-season ‘beasting’ sessions
There is a story still told behind the scenes by the players at St James’ Park about a field in Austria that almost broke them and a training session so tough that it left players unable to move from where they had collapsed for several minutes.
Howe deliberately kept the details of what was about to happen secret during their training camp.
After a light morning session, the players were told they would be running the length of the pitch, over and over again that afternoon. They were not told for how long, just that they could not stop until ordered to do so.
Shuttle runs in pre-season are nothing new, neither is running players hard. Players always dislike them, but those who took part in Howe’s “beasting session” were stunned by its intensity.
As fatigue set in and minds began to weaken after repeated drills, some members of the coaching team wanted to give the players a short break so that they could take on fluids. Howe and Tindall intervened to prevent them doing so, encouraging the players to help each other through the torment.
They did just that. It helped bring the squad closer together, even if some good naturedly cursed their manager at the time.
“Pre-season was hugely important, it always is,” Howe told Telegraph Sport. “That’s when you set your marker on how you want to play.
“With that comes a physical cost to the players, so it wasn’t a comfortable experience for them. They are taken out of their comfort zone, they are pushed. I don’t think ridiculously, but they are pushed to improve their fitness levels. That is where the foundations are laid.
“The attitude to that work was very good and I think we’ve got fitter as the season has gone on. We have looked better and better, especially late in games. I’ve looked at us and thought ‘we are really strong’.
“Fitness is one of those things as a player, having been there, you can sometimes take it for granted. You can think you are fit and then realise you are not actually as fit as you need to be.
“I’m a big believer that you can always go that little bit more because if you go onto the pitch it gives you so much confidence [that you are stronger] and that has been reflected in some of our performances.
Mental strength to go with physical fitness
Newcastle have to be brave to play the way they do. It is easier at home when the home crowd is urging them on, but they have also pulled it off away from home too. It also takes coordinated teamwork, each individual working as part of a machine.
When things go wrong, you have to be able to shrug it off and move again. Newcastle have been well beaten at times this season, against Aston Villa away and Arsenal at home in recent weeks, but not once have they retreated, let confidence drop or altered their mentality.
The swarm attack methods can be adapted. When Newcastle are tired, they can drop back into a more rigid formation with a bank of a back four in defence, five in midfield and a lone striker.
Yet they still attack with lightning speed when they can, as we saw against Brighton when two goals came in the 89th and 94th minute, on the counter attack, to seal another impressive victory.