There is something not quite right with Newcastle United so far this season. Four games in, they have lost three, as many as they had in 24 matches during the last campaign. Early days it may be, but with the Champions League campaign kicking off next next, Eddie Howe must remedy the situation rather quickly.
Perhaps the starkest reason for the early issues is precisely why they had such a great season last year. Their midfield is crucial to their play, generating the control and intensity they need in games to reach their full potential. Howe’s team play at a hundred miles an hour, particularly at St James’ Park. It is their ability to outrun and power through teams that lead them to overachieve so much last season, finishing fourth to reach Europe’s premier club competition for the first time in 20 years. But they needed organisation, structure and tempo to hold a relentless high press; that was where Bruno Guimarães came in.
Everything Newcastle did last season and still do at their best goes through the Brazilian. Predominantly a box-to-box midfielder, he was deployed in a deeper role, setting the tone for the press as the man who pushed up last to squeeze and suffocate opponents. So often, he would win the ball back high up the pitch, where Newcastle would have attacking overloads and be in positions to strike.
Throughout last season, it was noted that Guimarães wasn’t the permanent solution in the ‘number six’ role, and Newcastle would search for an alternative in the summer transfer market. But only Manchester City’s Rodri was better in possession under pressure in 2022/23, statistically. Guimarães averaged 23.5 passes under pressure per 90 minutes, defined by The Athletic as a pass made within two metres of an opponent, with an accuracy of 83%. There was no question over Guimarães’ suitability to the role, but rather his desire to push forward and the idea that he could impact games higher up, as he did after signing for the club in January 2022.
But then came the signing of Sandro Tonali from AC Milan. Although not possessing as much flair as Guimarães, the Italian offers similar attributes; energy, tenacity and press-resistance in a box to box capacity. Perhaps Howe’s idea was instead of ‘unlocking’ Guimarães, he would take some of the pressure off him by adding someone with the same level of quality. Against Aston Villa on the opening day, it was clear the pair were working well in tandem, but since then problems have arisen.
Guimarães has not been at his best for some time now. He suffered an ankle injury at the back end of last season which clearly impacted his performance levels, and teams like Aston Villa and Arsenal worked out ways to get in behind him on the counter attack. He hasn’t quite gelled this season next to Tonali and Joelinton, who on paper should make up one of the best midfields in the league. Sean Longstaff, a severely underrated member of the team last term, has been missed. But as shown by his error in possession for Liverpool’s stoppage time winner, he hasn’t been as sharp as he was.
On international duty for Brazil this week, Guimarães has shown his quality in a double pivot, as opposed to being the sole deep midfielder in a three. He looked comfortable, back to his best, dominating on the ball and recording an assist. The caretaker Brazil coach, Fernando Diniz, has a long-standing relationship with Guimarães from his days as Atletico Paranaence boss and is counting on the midfielder a lot more than his predecessor Tite did.
At club level, Guimarães has become Newcastle’s prized asset. His current contract runs out in 2026, and it has long been a priority for the club to renew But silence fell over the summer, with the player himself saying there was no news while with the club in the USA in July. It appears close now, which is huge for Newcastle, but there are reports suggesting the delay was because Guimarães didn’t want to play in the number six role all the time.
Cracks for beginning to show in the middle of the park for Newcastle, where they are most effective. Guimarães remains crucial, but between his poor form and desire to push up the pitch, added to the overall imbalance, for the first time there are questions for club’s coaching staff need to answer if their hugely impressive trajectory is to continue.