Can Newcastle return to the Champions League? Analysing their season so far

2K8G4B2 Newcastle United players celebrate at the end of the Premier League match at The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, London. Picture date: Sunday October 23, 2022.

Newcastle United have enjoyed a dream start to life in the Premier League this season, defying expectations and cementing themselves as one of English football’s most exciting teams despite their controversy-riddled takeover.

Their 2-1 statement victory over Tottenham at the weekend made even more rival fans stand up and take notice of Eddie Howe’s men, as they chase European football for next season. They sit fourth in the table, the first time they’ve been in the top four after 12 matches of a Premier League campaign since the 2011/12 season.

Unfortunately, that season would see Newcastle lose their top four status in the final stages to, ironically, Tottenham. Sixth-placed Chelsea’s victory in the Champions League that season, however, meant the Blues would replace Spurs in Europe’s elite cup competition.

We need to go back to 2003, under the guidance of the legendary Sir Bobby Robson, for the last time Newcastle did qualify for the Champions League. In the 2002/03 season, Newcastle finished third on 69 points, two points ahead of Chelsea in fourth, albeit finishing nine points behind second-placed Arsenal and 14 points behind winners Manchester United.

Sadly, their subsequent Champions League campaign would come to an abrupt end, suffering a defeat on penalties to Partizan Belgrade in the third qualifying round. Almost 20 years later, this remains their most recent Champions League match to date.

In terms of goalscoring, the Magpies that season were spearheaded by Alan Shearer’s 17 goals, with Craig Bellamy and Nolberto Solano also chipping in with seven goals each.

So far this season, Miguel Almiron seems to be the somewhat surprising man for the big occasion. He has six goals in 12 games, including five in five so far in October, an incredible turnaround for a player whose end product has often been heavily criticised by fans since his arrival in 2019. Only four players have scored more goals than him in the league this campaign.

Callum Wilson, despite a small injury layoff earlier in the season, is just behind Almiron with four in eight. But it’s the fact that nine Newcastle players have already scored this season which further suggests the entire team is contributing effectively to the team’s success. This has been important due to injury setbacks for regular talisman Allan Saint-Maximin and new big-money arrival Alexander Isak, who will not be available until after the World Cup.

The stat that is perhaps the most surprising, however, is the goals conceded. Newcastle have been known to be poor at the back in recent years, with the ability of defenders such as Jamaal Lascelles and Ciaran Clark called into question. In the 2020/21 season, the final full season under Steve Bruce, Newcastle conceded 62 goals at a rate of 1.63 per game.

This season, Newcastle have the best defensive record in the entire league, conceding just 10 goals at a rate of 0.83 per game. For context, Man City and Arsenal have both conceded 11. This is a positive sign as even in 2002/03, the Magpies had a rate of 1.26 goals conceded per game.

This record can be attributed to the fantastic defensive recruitment that has been made since last year’s takeover. Nick Pope has been extremely solid so far in goal since his arrival, making some astounding saves (including Premier League Save of the Month for August) and earning two England starts in the recent international break. Sven Botman has fully solidified his spot in the back four in recent weeks with a series of standout performances that have earned him a place in the Netherlands’ provisional squad for the upcoming World Cup.

Dan Burn has continued to look impressive since his arrival from Brighton in January, despite playing out of position at left-back in recent games. Fabian Schär has found a new lease of life this season, even surpassing the highly impressive performances he initially showed under Rafa Benítez.

Kieran Trippier, however, has taken most of the plaudits. Wearing the captain’s armband for most of this season, his experience and leadership has been crucial to the Magpies’ success, alongside his incredible set-piece ability which has seen him score three direct free kicks already on Tyneside. His performances have also made him a cult hero on Fantasy Premier League, with over 60% of managers using him in their squads. He is also expected to start for England at the World Cup in the likely absence of Kyle Walker and Reece James.

We also have to mention the extraordinary work rate of Brazilian duo Bruno Guimarães and Joelinton in front of the back four, allowing for a more solidified defensive structure but also high-quality ball progression into the final third. Guimarães, for example, ranks highest for both tackles per 90 minutes and through balls per 90 amongst the league’s top central and defensive midfielders. It’s no surprise that he is regularly being linked with Europe’s elite.

Key aspects of Newcastle’s play that have been pointed out by several pundits, including Jamie Carragher on the previous Monday Night Football on Sky Sports, is the high pressing system Eddie Howe has instilled and the increased focus on possession.

Newcastle are forcing 10.6 high turnovers a match as a result of this high press, continuously putting opposition defenders in trouble. This is a stark contrast to 4.7 high turnovers a game in Bruce’s last full season, when they were ranked 20th in the league for this statistic. They are also averaging 51% possession per game. This is only 10th highest in the league, but still a significant increase from 39% on average last season.

With over two-thirds of the season and a World Cup still to come, it’s still perhaps early doors to say that a top four push is definitely on the cards, but with the way the Magpies have begun this season, the sky seems to be the limit for them going forward.