Chris Wood’s fine finish puts Nottingham Forest 2-1 ahead against Newcastle. Photograph: Lee Smith/Reuters
For two years the mantra “intensity is our identity” served Eddie Howe and his Newcastle players extremely well but in recent weeks that creed has, almost imperceptibly, become a problem rather than a solution.
Howe’s exhaustive high‑pressing game is now producing so much fatigue and resulting in so many injuries that a change of philosophy seems essential if he and his team are to rescue a season that, until recently, promised so much.
Newcastle’s sixth defeat in their past seven games in all competitions – and fourth in five Premier League fixtures – arrived after they walked into the tactical trap set by Nottingham Forest’s new manager, Nuno Espírito Santo, and operated impeccably by the outstanding visiting winger Anthony Elanga and the hat-trick-scoring centre‑forward Chris Wood.
The New Zealand striker scored only one goal in 20 appearances at St James’ Park as a Newcastle player but here he revelled in playing the role of a ghost of Christmas past sent to haunt the manager who once invested £25m in his attacking talent.
If Wood’s accomplished treble suggested that Nuno has every chance of keeping Forest in the top tier, it also confirmed that Howe has entered the first real mini-crisis of his Tyneside tenure. He certainly had no answers to the visitors’ speed‑suffused counterattacking strategy.
“We knew how Newcastle play,” Nuno said following his first win since succeeding Steve Cooper last week. “We knew they would press very high and we knew that when the moment was there we would spin and go. Our plan was counterattacking. It was all about transitions. We knew that, if you beat Newcastle’s press, you will have chances against them.”
Creditably, Forest came from behind after Alexander Isak gave Howe’s team a first‑half lead from the penalty spot. The Sweden striker not merely converted but won that spot‑kick, after collapsing in the face of Ola Aina’s trip following Lewis Miley’s gorgeous rolled pass.
Yet as well as 17-year-old Miley has done in midfield, the centre of that department remains a significant weakness in Howe’s armoury. It was no surprise when Forest repeatedly sliced through the heart of a side suffering from the lack of a centrally positioned enforcer. As talented as Bruno Guimarães is, the crowd‑pleasing Brazil midfielder is not a natural No 6 and has an unfortunate habit of disappearing when the going gets tough. How Newcastle could do with a brand new pivot – if not a double pivot. Kalvin Phillips’s much-mooted arrival on loan from Manchester City next month would surely be welcome.
In the absence of such a figure the wheels have gradually fallen off Newcastle’s wagon, forcing them off the European road. Their chances of another Premier League top-four finish receded appreciably when, shortly before half-time, Morgan Gibbs‑White’s angled pass picked out Elanga whose typically slick low cross was polished off by Wood’s finish.
Elanga’s capacity for torturing Dan Burn very nearly led to a Forest lead within seconds of the restart but, perhaps a little startled by the sheer speed and velocity of the Sweden winger’s latest cross, Gibbs‑White headed fractionally wide. It was one of a litany of chances missed at both ends.
Happily for Nuno, Wood was wearing his shooting boots and swiftly offered Howe another reminder of his ability when he met a subtly curving Elanga pass and tricked Burn by shaping to shoot before dodging the wrong‑footed defender and lifting the ball imperiously over Martin Dubravka in the home goal.
Even then the 32-year-old was still not quite done. When a combination of Murillo’s through-ball and Kieran Trippier’s misjudgment left Wood onside with only Dubravka to beat, the Forest forward responded by shuffling the ball between his feet before rounding the Slovakia keeper and guiding the ball into the empty net.
Trippier’s decline in recent weeks has served as a microcosm of Newcastle’s slump. “My standards have dropped,” said the England right‑back who, for so long, lifted his team to new heights with a series of tone‑setting performances. “I’m nowhere near.”
A chastened Howe subsequently suggested that no one is undroppable. “I’ll be prepared to make any changes I think can benefit the team,” he said. “No amount of credit in the bank is big enough, my players know they have to perform. I’m uncomfortable [with recent results] but it’s delicate. My gut feeling is that the players and people we have here are good enough.”
Howe’s reluctance to rotate his, admittedly shallow, squad certainly appears to have caught up with a side who travel to Liverpool on New Year’s Day before visiting Sunderland in the FA Cup third round on Saturday week. After that fixtures against Manchester City and Aston Villa await. With those performances set to be subjected to forensic analysis by Newcastle’s Saudi Arabian overlords, Howe could certainly do with a new mantra. And fast.