The newest information presented by iSports API

Does Howe opt for Isak, Wilson, or both, in Newcastle's top-four pursuit

Posted on May 17, 2023

Newcastle United are not over the line yet. A 2-2 draw with Leeds on Saturday, coupled with weekend wins for Brighton and Liverpool, means the Magpies still have work to do in their bid to qualify for the Champions League.

A top-four finish would be an excellent achievement in Eddie Howe’s first full season in charge. Newcastle have spent hundreds of millions of pounds since they were controversially taken over by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, but few anticipated them qualifying for the Champions League this term. The Magpies are ahead of schedule.

It is interesting to observe how Newcastle’s approach has changed over the last few months. Up until early March, this was a team defined above all else by its defensive solidity.

In their first 24 games, Newcastle conceded only 17 goals - an average of 0.71 per match. The next best record at that point belonged jointly to Arsenal and Manchester City, both of whom had shipped 25 goals. Newcastle had kept clean sheets in exactly half of their matches. They possessed the meanest backline in the Premier League by some distance.

That was something of a surprise. Howe’s Bournemouth were invariably among the division’s leakiest outfits. For all his undoubted coaching talent, Howe continually struggled to strike the right balance between attack and defence in his last Premier League job.

The issue for Newcastle was at the other end of the field. Those first 24 games yielded just 35 goals - an average of 1.46 per match, and only the ninth-best return in the Premier League.

The turnaround since then is revealing. In their 11 encounters from mid-March onwards, Newcastle have scored a league-leading 28 goals, which works out as 2.55 per game. But that has come at the cost of their defensive resolve: the Magpies have kept only one clean sheet in this 11-game period.

This was likely the result of a conscious shift in emphasis from Howe. From New Year’s Eve until a 2-1 victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers on March 12th, Howe’s team went through a sticky patch in which they found the back of the net just three times in eight outings. Newcastle needed more creativity and attacking spark if they wanted to climb back into the top four.

Howe has not exactly stuck with a settled front three throughout their present run of eight wins in 11 matches. In fact, he has selected seven different combinations at the top of his favoured 4-3-3 formation. A trident of Jacob Murphy, Alexander Isak and Alan Saint-Maximin has gradually morphed into the Miguel Almiron-Callum Wilson-Isak trident we saw in Saturday’s 2-2 draw with Leeds.

It was the second consecutive game in which Newcastle deployed Isak on the left and Callum Wilson at centre-forward. Howe had previously suggested that this arrangement was unlikely to be a regular occurrence.

"The thinking behind getting Alex and Callum together was pretty obvious really," he said after a win at Brentford in which Isak came off the bench at half-time. "I just think we needed more of a focal point in the game.

"They’re two quality players. Can they play together every week? Tactically, probably not. But can they play together in a game like this? Absolutely."

On that occasion Howe shifted to a 4-2-3-1, with Isak deployed in the No.10 role. He has tended to drift into central zones of late too, but Newcastle fans will have noted that their team has not won either of the games in which both attackers have started.

With that in mind, Howe may switch things up again when Brighton come to town on Thursday. After Liverpool beat Leicester City on Monday, this has become a crucial match for Newcastle. This is their game in hand on Jurgen Klopp’s side, who are suddenly just a point behind the Magpies with two full rounds of fixtures remaining.

It would be a surprise if Howe stuck with the same front three that drew with Leeds. Wilson scored two penalties in that game, but Newcastle struggled to fashion clear-cut chances from open play.

One option is to start Isak as a second striker behind Wilson, even though that would necessitate a move away from the 4-3-3. Otherwise, Howe will have a big choice to make on which of the two forwards should lead the line. The outcome of his decision could have huge implications for the top-four race.