Eddie Howe sack incoming after Newcastle slump to embarrassing defeat with Liverpool, City waiting
Newcastle’s eighth defeat in 12 games was inflicted upon them by a player they ruthlessly discarded on a path which may have similarly outgrown Eddie Howe.
The outside noise is getting harder to drown out. Through elimination from the Champions League group stage, exit from an eminently winnable Carabao Cup and Premier League form which has seen only one side lose more games since November began, that ‘external negativity’ at Newcastle must be seeping into the cracks forming in their season.
That solitary Premier League team to be defeated more often in the past two months is Nottingham Forest. That remains the case on Boxing Day, even with Nuno Espirito Santo recording his first win as manager of the Reds in the sort of match the Portuguese built his English top-flight reputation on.
Nuno has never lost to Newcastle and only briefly during his eighth meeting with the Magpies did that look like changing. Alexander Isak bought and immediately cashed in a penalty won through dubious contact with Ola Aina after Lewis Miley’s clever clipped pass, and the hosts had a 23rd-minute lead at St James’ Park.
But Forest’s counter-attack threat was as blatant as it was latent. Anthony Elanga’s pace and Chris Wood’s presence provided a constant reminder of the risks in terms of committing too many players forward.
That partnership has helped keep Forest heads above water this season. Elanga laid on two Wood goals against Luton in October, while the former Newcastle striker returned the favour in controversial defeat to Bournemouth last time out.
They should have combined again on the half-hour mark when Murillo found Elanga in space down the right, but he elected to shoot instead of squaring to the free and consequently furious Wood.
Elanga did not make that same mistake again in first-half stoppage-time. A Newcastle attack collapsed at the feet and mind of Miguel Almiron, who had three team-mates to pick out and instead found a Forest shirt. Morgan Gibbs-White led the counter charge, riding a half-tackle from Kieran Trippier who might well have taken the booking in hindsight. The pass to Elanga was gloriously weighted – mainly because it removed the shooting option and ensured the unmarked Wood would be found in the centre this time.
Gibbs-White was electric throughout, which bodes well for the resumption of his often rocky relationship with Nuno. He could have scored straight after the restart as Newcastle continued to toil, but the former Wolves man’s header flashed wide from Elanga’s cross; Dan Burn had once again been well beaten.
Forest did not have to wait long for either their deserved lead, nor its subsequent doubling. Elanga played a stunning through ball to Wood – credit to referee Chris Kavanagh for playing on – who skinned Burn and finished superbly past Martin Dubravka. The hat-trick was complete when Wood bent his run to collect Murillo’s incisive pass before repeating precisely the same move on Dubravka which so bamboozled Burn shortly before.
The ex-Newcastle striker who had scored once in his time at St James’ Park had summarily destroyed his old side in a scintillating performance. Merry Chris Wood, one and all.
Chris Wood scores hat-trick for Nottingham Forest.
Except for Newcastle, of course. Howe surveyed the damage and removed Burn and Almiron straight after Wood made it 2-1; half-time substitutions would have been too late for both. Bruno Guimaraes put in his customary performance with a few neat flicks before losing his entire head and fouling everyone while somehow avoiding a red card. Newcastle threw whole heaps of excrement at the wall but none of it stuck.
No longer can this run be ignored and simply played off as jealous critics having a pop. Newcastle have won three, drawn one and lost eight of their last 12 games across three different competitions. Their away form is disastrous. Things are better at St James’ Park but when Plan A of chasing down every ball, appealing for every decision and shouting quite loudly fails, there is a painful lack of an alternative course of action.
Forest exploited that to the fullest degree and a glance at Newcastle’s upcoming fixtures suggests that is a slight cause for concern. After a New Year’s Day trip to Liverpool comes a no-win FA Cup Tyne-Wear derby, the visit of Manchester City and a jaunt to Aston Villa. Then Newcastle start February with games against Luton and Nottingham Forest: more routine matches on paper, but ones they have shown to be wholly troublesome in the last four days.
There are injuries and there are caveats, but there is also an unlimited budget, a boundless project and an inherent raising of expectation levels that comes with that – and being consigned to a home defeat by a hat-trick from a player brutally bought and ruthlessly sold on this unremitting ascent to the top does not fall within such a remit.
Wood delivering those blows was apropos: someone outgrown on this potentially trophy-laden path and subsequently discarded, perhaps pushing Howe towards a similar fate. Individuals can and will be left behind as Newcastle continue to invest. That is how these things work. It does not mean that they are not good or have nothing to offer, just that that are no longer good enough and the club can attract better composite parts to put in the machine. Those who signed up for this accepted the possible trade-off at some point.
Howe has done more than anyone to drag the standards at Newcastle up but deploying his high-tempo tactics in a uniquely challenging season has seen them crash and only a fool would pretend that his position should not be called into question as a result.
“Wishing you a very Merry Christmas. Hopefully it’s not your last Christmas,” was the message Howe’s assistant, Jason Tindall, sent to the fans this year, delivered with a weirdly sinister wink from the hospital. If things continue this way, it will surely be theirs.