Last season, Newcastle United’s reliance on Bruno Guimaraes was so stark that they didn’t win a game without him. In a campaign that was all about exceeding expectation, it became obvious that if the Magpies are to continue their upward trajectory as that expectation grows, they need to diversify their approach from the middle of the pitch.
Guimaraes has fast become everything to Newcastle; a conductor, a driving force and, in many of the very biggest games, a foothold. His flair and creativity have made Eddie Howe’s side an incredibly exciting team to watch, but it is his defensive understanding and game intelligence that we’re so badly missed when he wasn’t there.
Howe’s team play with incredible intensity; their pressing is constant and that energy and level of fitness has provided them with the base from which they built their run to Champions League qualification. Guimaraes sets the tone, backing up the press from the deepest role in midfield to pin teams back, and occasionally joining in higher up. When he’s not there, or if teams manage to nullify him, Newcastle don’t push as high up and their entire gameplan loses its effectiveness.
Guimaraes prefers to play further forward, and initially, Newcastle planned to sign a specialist holding midfielder in order to free him up. But their move for Sandro Tonali, another who can dovetail across both roles, has done something even better, as victory over Fiorentina in a pre-season tournament showed.
With two games over Saturday and Sunday, Howe split his squad across both days. Tonali faced Fiorentina and Guimaraes played against Villarreal. But Newcastle didn’t lack the control or pressure without him in the first game; Tonali may not possess the flair Guimaraes does, but he had slotted in to the same role with equal impact where is really counts. Newcastle were braver in chasing the opposition than they have been without the Brazilian before; there is finally a plan b, and, perhaps most excitingly, the prospect of their combination, potentially starting against Aston Villa on Saturday.
But perhaps not, because there is the small matter of Elliot Anderson’s emergence as a first team force to consider. His impressive displays from the Premier League Summer Series in the USA continued against Fiorentina, and his creativity, added to Tonali and fellow academy graduate, 17-year-old Lewis Miley’s dictation of the play, have taken the midfield options to a new level, without taking Joelinton, who scored on Sunday, Sean Longstaff and the injured Joe Willock.
Right now, it feels impossible for Howe to drop Anderson for the visit of Aston Villa next week. Because of the intensity with which Newcastle play, he doesn’t tend to throw players in at the deep end, and as Tonali acclimatises to life in England, taking intense lessons in the language, it might be that he does that again.
Now is the time for Anderson. After an impressive loan spell at Bristol Rovers two years ago, there were flashes from him last term, but Howe senses a difference in him.
“I think he has possibly had the best pre-season I’ve seen him have,” Howe said on Saturday. “He is pushing – I want every player to believe they can play and deliver under pressure.
“He’s done that so far, but he’s got huge competition in the area he’s playing, whether that’s in midfield or out wide. I’ve got tough calls to make.”
Harvey Barnes could be battling Anthony Gordon for a position on the left, after scoring twice in his home debut on Sunday, while Miguel Almiron, who opened the scoring against Fiorentina on Saturday, looks certain to be on the right.
There is much more to come from Barnes, but he certainly hit the ground running.
“When you sign a player with the attributes you want, you are not asking them to do anything they are not comfortable with,” said Howe. “Harvey looked good in the team. He performed really well; I was delighted with the two goals and the two finishes. Physically, he looked good as well.
“Every player is different and Harvey will have experienced Callum [Wilson] and Joelinton today. It is really good to see relationships blossoming. They will get stronger over time. It takes time to gel.”
There have been doubts about whether Newcastle can handle the increased work load and expectation that comes with Champions League football, but on the evidence of this weekend, they are in a very good place.