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Eddie Howe goes back to basics to fix Newcastle’s defence

Dan Burn and Tino Livramento

This was a good day for Eddie Howe: Newcastle United’s first clean sheet in the league since the middle of December, their first win at home this year and a return to something like their irritating best against Wolverhampton Wanderers.

The manager finally got to grips with Newcastle’s defensive issues and solved their problematic home form with a clever tactical switch. It was a return to basics for Newcastle, who caught Wolves by surprise when they neglected to press high up the pitch, dropped deep and defended in two banks of four on the edge of their own area.

No longer was Dan Burn exposed at left-back as the opposition winger had no room to work with. Burn, for so long the scapegoat for a defence that had leaked 31 goals in just 12 league games before Wolves drew a blank, had his best game for weeks.

No longer could Newcastle’s defensive three be passed through with ease in the centre of midfield, because their centre-backs were standing right behind them and, with Joe Willock back, they had someone with pace to get out and ensure Burn was not left one-on-one.

Joe WIllock plays a cute pass
Joe Willock was integral to Newcastle's greater solidity - Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images

Wolves did not seem to know what to do. Invited to have the ball by their hosts, they kept giving it away, passing in front of Newcastle’s two-layered defence but very rarely in behind it. Newcastle have been far too easy to score against for weeks; Howe finally found a way to plug the leaks. Newcastle may have played like the away team, but this was their best performance at home since they beat Manchester United here three months ago.

“It has been our first wobble here [at St James’ Park] because our home form has been the bedrock of our success,” said Howe. “That has been a concern but this was a lot better.

“We made a slight tweak today, we played a far more transitional game as we thought this was the best way to hurt them. It wasn’t our usual way of playing. I know people say we play the same way every week, but we really don’t. We were happy to let them have the ball. We were cute in certain situations.”

All three goals were scored on the counter-attack, drawing Wolves on to them, before punishing them with rapid, penetrative thrusts.

Anthony Gordon scores
Newcastle score their second, like the goals either side, on the break - Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images

Even afterwards, Wolves seemed perplexed by what had been done to them, manager Gary O’Neil even denying that Newcastle had let them have the ball. “There is no way Newcastle let us have the ball,” he said. “I know Eddie Howe, his teams press high and want to attack, especially at home. They didn’t have the ball because we were so good with it. Our structure was better than theirs…”

That was a very strange thing to say after a 3-0 defeat but O’Neil was probably trying to defend his players rather than himself. Other than a 10-minute spell in the second half when Newcastle tired before they brought on their substitutes, Wolves rarely hurt Newcastle. Martin Dubravka made a couple of good saves in that period, the best of them from Pablo Sarabia.

But Newcastle were far more incisive and clinical. The all-important first goal came when Fabian Schar intercepted a pass inside his own area, immediately threading a pass into the feet of Anthony Gordon. There are not many players as quick as Gordon in the Premier League and he galloped from one end of the pitch to the other, before releasing Bruno Guimaraes at the perfect time. The Brazil international’s shot deflected off a sliding Craig Dawson straight into the path of Alexander Isak to head home.

Newcastle United's Alexander Isak scores their side's first goal of the game
Alexander Isak nips in to score Newcastle's first - Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

The second came when the hugely impressive Willock cut off Wolves as they tried to pass through them in their own half, releasing Jacob Murphy. The winger’s cross was a good one, but it was too close to goalkeeper Jose Sa, but in horribly wet conditions, he palmed the ball into his own defender Max Kilman. It left Gordon with a tap-in.

Newcastle were once renowned for their ability to control the pace of a game and they returned to all their old tricks. Slowing the game down, making it a stop-start affair and depriving Wolves any attacking momentum.

Their third goal was a thing of beauty too, Tino Livramento running almost the length of the pitch to gather a long pass from Schar, before beating two Wolves defenders inside the area and rolling the ball into the net.

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