Eddie Howe facing serious questions after Newcastle’s meek surrender to Forest

Howe has surely enough credit in the bank to protect his job for now – but his team selection here was baffling amid a growing injury crisis
Howe looks frustrated as Newcastle slump to defeat to Forest (Photo: Reuters)

ST. JAMES’ Park Two years ago, Newcastle United signed Chris Wood to save their season. A swaggering return in the red of Nottingham Forest leaves alarm bells clanging loud and clear for his old boss, Eddie Howe.

Wood’s brilliant hat-trick was a lift-off for Forest’s new manager, Nuno Espirito Santo, whose team were scintillating on the counter-attack as they inflicted a rare domestic home defeat on out-of-sorts Newcastle. He has a big win to offer him instant authority.

But for Howe, the campaign has suddenly taken a darker turn as a remarkable 2023 curdles into the first serious questions about the club’s direction under his stewardship. Fitness, obvious signs of fatigue, and injuries to key players provide mitigation, but managers are inevitably left exposed when their teams lose like this.

This has gone from a blip to something that feels bigger. They have lost six of their last seven games and exited the Champions League and Carabao Cup in a damaging December. But it is also eight defeats in 12, stretching back to November. With an unforgiving January fixture list looming large, this feels serious.

Howe has the acumen and credit in the bank to insulate him from fears about his job. That is only right; he has transformed the club and fast-tracked them into contention. He is a manager of serious heft, and the club’s ownership—at least those most visible in the form of day-to-day custodians Amanda Staveley and Mehrdad Ghodoussi—is reassuringly sensible and understands the wider context of this slide. But if the man in the dugout isn’t going to change, something else must.

When Newcastle were last in a position of peril under these owners, anchored in the relegation zone just after the Saudi buy-out was completed, they moved quickly to change the narrative by signing reinforcements. Pedigree is mixed with practicality, hence bringing Wood in to offer a struggling team a focal point. He scored once in 20 games at St James’ Park in black and white; he had three in 15 minutes here.

24 months on, is Newcastle’s hierarchy ready to act again? Howe was left badly served by a summer window that ignored the pressing needs of competing on four fronts. Now he needs a response; this is a team in need of renewal and fresh impetus.

For their part, they are entitled to ask questions back. The team selection here was puzzling. Dan Burn looks as though he has been rushed back before he is fully fit, and picking him to repel Forest’s rapier counter-attack felt flawed. Keeping him on the field through halftime when Anthony Elanga was so electric proved disastrous, with Howe eventually withdrawing him after 55 minutes for Tino Livramento. It was notable that Nuno switched the Sweden winger to the right to inflict maximum damage.

Why, through this injury crisis, can Lewis Hall not get a game either?

Howe’s thinking was obvious: return to the tried and trusted back four that has turned Newcastle into contenders this calendar year. But too many players are out of form or fatigued. Miguel Almiron too often plays the wrong pass, and it was his mistake that opened up the pitch for Forest’s leveller.

Newcastle’s edginess was well exploited by the visitors. They started pretty well, hugging possession and looking purposeful in attack. Their goal was deserved, a penalty won by the ingenuity of Lewis Miley, who played a wonderful through ball that drew a foul on Alexander Isak. When he rolled home the spot kick, relief flowed, and familiar home form and certainty seemed to have returned.

But Nuno’s plan, centred on the pace of the three forwards stationed behind Wood, arrested any momentum from Isak’s goal. Breaks from Morgan Gibbs-White and Elanga stretched Newcastle’s resistance. When Almiron played a wrong pass, those two combined to tee up Wood for the easiest of finishes.

From there, Forest soared, breaking Newcastle’s aggressive press far too easily. A second goal—Wood jinking past Burn before a brilliant dinked finish—whipped the rug from under Newcastle’s feet. A rearranging of the back four failed to yield results, with Wood pouncing to score a crucial third.

What a moment this was for Nuno! Replacing a popular manager in Steve Cooper, he needed results rapidly, and here was a big one.

The massed visiting supporters even chanted his name as they saw out the game. As his opposite number would testify, fortune in football moves at breakneck speed.

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