Eddie Howe remodelled his midfield and the changes helped Newcastle United edge a forgettable battle with Brentford. The manager should now use sense over sentiment when selecting his side in the San Siro…
It has been a conflicting fortnight at Newcastle. The Magpies are relishing a trip to Milan but their form prior to the international break was anything but Champions League. While the Toon Army has been preparing to mobilise, Eddie Howe has had to wrestle with how to arrest a run of three defeats. He found a solution – but one not likely to make everyone happy. Especially his marquee summer signing.
After losing to Manchester City, Liverpool and Brighton during a streak that went from creditable to crap via calamitous, Howe spoke on Friday of the need for perspective and not making wholesale changes to a side that’s “not broken”. But Newcastle’s midfield certainly hasn’t been functioning effectively. That, evidently, hadn’t escaped Howe.
His team-sheet for Brentford listed five changes from the miserable defeat at Brighton, with four in the front six. Leaving out Sandro Tonali and Joelinton was made simpler by knocks sustained by the pair on international duty but the Italian was fit enough for a place on the bench.
It was a convenient excuse for Howe since a reaction required far greater solidity in his engine room. Bruno Guimaraes has been overrun this season but the presence of Elliot Anderson and Sean Longstaff stiffened the hosts’ core, especially against a Brentford side with three in the middle and wing-backs flying either side for the first time since the opening weekend of the season.
The ensuing battle wasn’t pretty, but entertainment wasn’t the order of the day. This was all about ending a run that has rendered Newcastle pointless for over a month and lifting the fog that has hung over the Tyne for the last two weeks.
Just one point would probably have satisfied Howe so two more came as a bonus, the benefit of a Mark Flekken’s second-half brain fart.
The Brentford ‘keeper had already got away with one mistake which saw Wilson score what would have been one of the scruffiest goals of his career had the officials not taken pity on Flekken after he brushed by a Newcastle body under a high ball in his six-yard box.
That ‘goal’ ought to have stood. Which perhaps prompted karmic intervention since Newcastle’s winner came from a penalty that probably wasn’t.
Anthony Gordon was felled while colliding with Flekken as the ball went beyond the byline into touch. The fact Flekken got involved at all was a mistake. Aaron Hickey had the situation under control when he was first to an overhit cross but his goalkeeper insisted on receipt of the ball way wide of his goal. The summer signing realised the error of his ways since he attempted to pull out mid-swing as Gordon nipped in. Was the resulting collision worthy of a penalty? Probably not. Nor, though, was its award clearly and obviously wrong.
Wilson dispatched the attempt with the conviction you would expect of a striker who has scored 11 from 11 when put on the spot for Newcastle, despite Flekken taking advice from the Brentford bench on the direction of his dive.
If Newcastle were expecting the Bees to rally, they would have been pleasantly surprised over how serenely they saw out the 100 minutes. Nick Pope went on his own misadventure from his goal-line, leaving Bryan Mbeumo a free header and an unguarded goal at the far post, but his attempt showcased the lack of conviction present in Brentford’s all-round play.
Still, palpable relief greeted the final whistle, which will have prompted the vast majority present to commit this game to the furthest, darkest corner of their memories, especially with Milan on the horizon.
The Toon Army will buzz off the build up to their Tuesday evening trip to Italy – and so they should – but before the Magpies take flight, Howe has some difficult decisions to ponder after those taken today to solidify his midfield paid off.
Tonali was one of the first to be hugged by the manager when victory was confirmed but the Italian might not feel like embracing his boss if Howe applies cold logic rather than warm sentiment when selecting his side for their Champions League opener in the San Siro.
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