From backs to the wall in Milan, to best feet forward at Bramall Lane and then home to St James’ Park and treble winners Manchester City, Newcastle United have navigated three wildly different matches in wildly different locations, conditions and circumstances and come through unbeaten and unscathed; pretty wild when you think about it. Over the course of a week, there has been travel, two wins, a draw, three clean sheets and enough rotation to bring on dizziness.
If supporters’ heads are spinning, just imagine how Eddie Howe and his players are feeling after withstanding a (theoretical) battering at a sweltering San Siro, inflicting one of their own on Sheffield United, then playing through Pep Guardiola’s ferocious press in a howling gale. Pretty good, probably — it is a first-world, top-four kind of problem, after all, but Newcastle have also taken steps to level out the swells and dips of adrenaline.
Sports psychology is not a new addition to football’s armoury, but the reconstruction of a hollowed-out club takes all forms and Newcastle understand that building blocks are mental as well as physical. Less than two years ago, this was a team and fanbase confronting the very real prospect of relegation from the Premier League and although the personnel is shifting and eyes are trained upwards, the scale of change requires acclimatisation.
Newcastle have brought in a consultant psychologist this season tasked with helping players deal with the peaks and troughs of competing in the Champions League, not allowing the highs, lows or long journeys to distract them and then rousing themselves for the less glamorous fixtures when anti-climax might otherwise strike. The general principle is that it should not matter who the team are playing – the commitment and attitude should be the same.
For Guardiola’s City, thick with quality in every position and with the demonic hunger of serial winners (this was only their second defeat inside 90 minutes over 38 games), all this is a given; the manager does not tolerate anything less.
On Tyneside, the novelty of excellence has not quite worn off, something which became evident in the weeks that surrounded Newcastle’s appearance at the Carabao Cup final in February. Their fans won the weekend, daubing London in black and white, but their team lost focus and then lost the big moments to Manchester United.
It will be a different Newcastle that travel to Old Trafford for their fourth-round tie and a swift re-match. “With the way we’re going and the competitions we’re in, we’re playing elite teams all the time. We have to get used to it,” Howe said in response (although what is it with their cup draws this season? Milan, Paris Saint-Germain, Borussia Dortmund, both Manchester clubs…). And if it proves an off day, rebounding quickly will be key.
The better Newcastle get, the more experience they garner and quality they sign, the more flitting between different competitions will become second nature. In the meantime, it is hoped that psychology will assist them on the way, a development green-lighted by the wider football department headed by Dan Ashworth, the sporting director, but with Howe’s enthusiastic support.
It is an area the head coach spoke about this week. “It’s a very difficult thing to measure, the psychological, emotional cost that a game gives a player and that’s where sometimes you’ve got to make decisions based on your gut feeling rather than physical stats,” he said. “The emotional, psychological stuff you can’t get a reading on. That’s why I’ll sometimes make changes based on that, either protecting the player or giving someone else an opportunity.”
Matt Ritchie, one of Newcastle’s leadership group of senior players, addressed it in his programme notes, too. “The big challenge going into the weekend was our mentality after a big push in the week at San Siro, physically and emotionally. To perform how we did was a reflection of how hungry for success this group is.” Howe refers to Newcastle’s “hunt for a trophy”, but the scent of blood is often fainter in the early rounds or against lesser opposition. Not this week.
There could hardly be more contrasting occasions and challenges than Newcastle faced in Italy, South Yorkshire and on Gallowgate over eight manic days; the stature of AC Milan and the throbbing drums of their ultras, Sheffield United’s persecution and collapse, then Guardiola’s possession-huggers after Howe made 10 changes. Each of them were dealt with, well enough in the final case to give Howe his first-ever win over the Spaniard in 14 attempts.
As against Milan and Sheffield United, Newcastle had to adapt to their environment. At half-time against City, a heavily rotated side had scarcely seen the ball, but the introduction of Anthony Gordon and Bruno Guimaraes brought a significant shift in momentum. Howe’s players were no longer passive; there was a brilliant, crunching challenge from Gordon on Mateo Kovacic that signalled the change in tone. “The balance of the team was much better,” Howe said. Their brutality returned.
Newcastle’s goal was quick and aggressive, with Jamaal Lascelles passing forward, Jacob Murphy delivering to Joelinton, and the Brazilian powering into the box and towards the right before squaring for Alexander Isak, who finished comfortably. There were full debuts for Lewis Hall, Lewis Miley and the superb Tino Livramento, who are the team’s future (all being well) and some trademark sliding tackles from Paul Dummett, who is not.
It would have been easy — and perhaps understandable, given their return to Europe, the injuries and the tinkering — for the team to not quite be at it, to be half a yard short, but Dummett, who had not played since Tranmere Rovers, also in the Carabao Cup, 13 months ago, embodied them, throwing himself at everything. “Outstanding,” Howe said. “When you see Paul behind the scenes, his commitment, the professionalism that he shows, his standards have been exemplary.”
The idea is to have that everywhere and in every context. It was interesting to see Joelinton raise his arms above his shoulders as the game neared its conclusion, exhorting the crowd to respond. Respond they did, loudly and with glee, but that psychology is not just about the players. To be consistently ferocious is draining, on and off the pitch, and at a club that spent a decade and more ticking along, flailing badly or gazing inwards, it is also very new.
With precious little time to work in detail on the training ground, minor problems keeping Callum Wilson and Sven Botman out and illness doing for Dan Burn and Martin Dubrakva, and bumps and bruises mounting up against City, keeping minds fresh and uncluttered is vital. This is just the start; it is Burnley next, then PSG, then away to West Ham United, the games and competitions rolling on. The contrasts are extreme, but the hunt is on.
(Top photo: Getty Images)
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