Newcastle United may have had a close-up view of Borussia Dortmund’s two best performances of the season but Eddie Howe rued: “I don’t think Dortmund have seen the best Newcastle.” Paris Saint-Germain have, but that might not be enough to spare his side. The Champions League may not see much more of Newcastle for this season and the group of death might lead to an early autopsy.
After Tuesday night’s 2-0 reversal made it twin defeats to Dortmund, Howe conceded that Newcastle probably need two wins – away to PSG, at home to AC Milan – to extend their participation beyond Christmas. His downcast air suggested it is unlikely. From topping their pool two weeks earlier, Newcastle prop it up.
And there was a death of sorts in the Signal Iduna Park on a night to showcase where, after it went spectacularly right on the night against PSG, it has gone wrong for Newcastle.
Callum Wilson had four touches and went off at half-time, Howe citing a tight hamstring, others wondering if an ineffectual performance was the reason. Kieran Trippier, so good for much of the campaign, had a second underwhelming outing against Dortmund, his poor free kick leading to their second goal. Bruno Guimaraes, without Sandro Tonali to share the load, was no better; Newcastle had looked over-reliant on each to conjure something. Lewis Hall’s Champions League debut was curtailed after 45 minutes in which he was booked and because Howe was concerned he might be sent off. Tino Livramento’s bow at this level was more encouraging but he had to play three different positions and Joelinton wasted the chance he made. Anthony Gordon and Miguel Almiron began on the bench, players who are reliant on sharpness suffering from their recent workload, and without Harvey Barnes, Alexander Isak and Jacob Murphy, there were no alternative forwards.
The eventual analysis may be that Newcastle were wounded before they suffered a fatal blow. They ran out of players, losing some of those who may have made a difference. Isak played only 14 minutes at home to Dortmund, none away. Barnes has played one minute in the competition. Sven Botman has a lone appearance, and it brought Newcastle’s sole clean sheet. Without Dan Burn, three different players took turns at left-back in the Signal Iduna Park.
Injuries have been compounded by another absence, and the prospect of it: but for his impending betting ban, Tonali may have started when Dortmund visited St James’ Park. Their build-up disrupted, that defeat deprived Newcastle of momentum.
The Italian was supposed to add Champions League experience. Should the standings stay the same, should Dortmund progress, the knowhow of annual entrants may appear crucial; Newcastle are rookies at this level and Howe did not dispute that his side have not always replicated their domestic form in continental competition.
There is a contrast between their fortunes in England and Europe. Dortmund coach Edin Terzic had studied the statistics. “We managed to win twice against Newcastle, their only two defeats in 13 matches, every time with a clean sheet,” noted the Dortmund manager. Only Manchester City and Brighton have shut Newcastle out in the Premier League or Carabao Cup; Milan have done once and Dortmund twice in the Champions League.
Newcastle have not scored away in Europe. “I think we have had chances in both games,” said Howe. “Maybe haven’t been as clinical as we would like.” Yet they had a lone shot on target in the San Siro, from Sean Longstaff in injury time, and if Joelinton was profligate in the Signal Iduna Park, others did not get the opportunity to be.
Newcastle felt insufficiently creative. Maybe it would have been different had Gordon been able to set the tone by rousing, riling and rattling. “Anthony played 90 minutes against Arsenal and gave everything,” Howe explained. “The turnaround was too quick for him to start so we wanted to use him as an impact player.” There was reason behind the rotation but it backfired.
Yet Dortmund showed what they lacked. Newcastle have no player with the inventiveness of Julian Brandt, no specialist in picking the lock. Their system contains no space for a No 10; their squad has no one with that skillset, though Brandt excels playing off the left for Dortmund. Perhaps European football necessitates more of an artist; maybe a future spending spree should be focused around someone with those qualities.
That lack of a genuine creator in the final third is a partial explanation of their inability to score in three of four Champions League games. Some of the goals they did score in the other – Burn’s magnificent header, Fabian Schar’s long-range strike – were the most special because they had the feel of one-offs.
In contrast, Nick Pope’s heroics have come to seem the norm. The goalkeeper has been Newcastle’s finest player while their other supposed elite players were out of sorts, on the bench or absent altogether, it wasn’t enough.
Maybe Newcastle’s efforts won’t be, either: and if this is a learning curve, a lesson may be that overachieving in England is one thing. Doing it in Europe is altogether harder.