When the red fuel light on the dashboard starts flashing drivers know they are on borrowed time. It all depends on a car’s make and model but there will be 30, 40, possibly even 50 miles left in the tank. Eddie Howe’s problem is that, unlike a motorist, he cannot steer his increasingly drained squad towards the sanctuary of a nearby filling station.
“We’re missing a big number of players,” says Newcastle’s manager. “You can keep going for a while, but the longer it lasts, the harder it gets. We don’t have options to change players.”
Instead, a Newcastle squad lacking 12 injured, or in Sandro Tonali’s case, suspended, senior professionals must fulfil their fifth fixture in 15 days at Tottenham on Sunday before facing Milan at St James’ Park on Wednesday in the Champions League. For the moment, rotation remains a fantasy.
Given the extent, and in several cases seriousness, of the injury list it is a minor miracle Howe has seen his side cover so much ground so successfully of late but Thursday’s 3-0 defeat at Everton served as a reminder that those blinking warning lights cannot be defied indefinitely.
Howe, though, is desperate to avoid Tottenham extending their one-point Premier League advantage over Newcastle. “Spurs was always going to be a really big game for both teams,” he says. “We’re under no illusions as to this match’s importance.”
Its potential significance dictates that Kieran Trippier will not be granted the rest he evidently craves. Trippier has frequently been Newcastle’s best player and, in his manager’s words “the catalyst of so many of the good things which have happened”. But the England right-back’s uncharacteristic mistakes gifted Everton victory. At 33, Trippier looks shattered, but he is also indispensable.
One of the reasons Howe arrives at the training ground by 6.30am every weekday morning is his obsession with continuing to fight all fronts, but maybe the moment to start prioritising competitions has arrived?
In recent times Newcastle managers never seemed heartbroken when the team made early cup exits. It was not down to any lack of ambition, just a case of Rafael Benítez and co prioritising a relegation scrap above cup glory.
Under their Saudi Arabian ownership that remit has altered appreciably but a combination of the need to meet financial fair player regulations, the arguably over intense pressing game and sheer bad luck have left a squad incapable of challenging simultaneously in the Premier League, the Champions League, League and FA Cups.
In finishing fourth last season Newcastle overachieved but the desire to remain firmly on the European map dictates that the ownership are desperate to return to next season’s edition of the continent’s showpiece contest. By way of complicating the task, they would also rather like the club’s first major trophy since the Fairs Cup in 1969.
Howe copes with the attendant pressure by placing himself in an almost hermetically sealed world. Any free time is dedicated to his family but, so singular is the approach, that neighbours in the suburb of Gosforth sometimes do not recognise a man whose determination to avoid distractions sometimes prompts him to leave the house in disguise.
Newcastle’s geographical heart lies two miles across the Town Moor from his home but Howe is believed to have made one city centre shopping trip since his arrival just over two years ago. Meals out in restaurants remain rarities. The days when fans bumped into Alan Pardew pushing a trolley around Waitrose in Ponteland or Benítez shopping in the south Gosforth branch of Sainsbury’s are long gone.
Given the improvement in the performance of individual players – most notably Jamaal Lascelles, Fabian Schär, Joelinton and Miguel Almiron – he is clearly doing something right. Still Howe’s “intensity is our identity” mantra has its limits. Perhaps tellingly, the injured defender Dan Burn told the BBC on Monday that “psychologically” he felt he had “played an entire season” by the time the October international break arrived.
Whether the thrilling high-tempo pressing style is sustainable long term remains debatable – with transfer market reinforcements expected in January it might be – but the contrast between the team’s home and away record suggests this is a side playing largely on the adrenaline fuelled by St James’ Park’s fervour.
While Newcastle’s home record is near flawless they have won once away in the Premier League – 8-0 at Sheffield United. “It’s difficult to understand,” says Howe. “Last year, our away form was very good.” Tottenham would be a splendid place to start putting things right.
All eyes will be on Newcastle’s Slovakia goalkeeper Martin Dubravka – blameless at Everton – as he, once again, understudies Nick Pope, whose complicated shoulder dislocation will sideline him until at least April. Howe certainly has no cause to question the commitment of Pope’s deputy who, during lockdown wore goalkeeping gloves while walking around his house because he “missed the job I love” so much.
Perhaps the more pertinent question is are Howe and his band of “incredible” players trying almost too hard?