Moments after Newcastle’s 5-0 defeat to Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday, Eddie Howe said something very interesting. It was probably the most relevant and profound thing he could have said in the circumstances, as the shockwaves of such a hefty defeat began to reverberate.
“There were some good things from us, but they are not things you can focus on when you’ve lost 5-0,” he remarked. In reality, Newcastle’s participation in the game was only ever a side tangent; whether they won, lost or drew, it was about City and their ability to both put their own problems behind them while simultaneously exploiting Liverpool’s. Defeat in the Champions League semi final to Real Madrid, and the manner of it, added to the Reds’ draw with Tottenham the day before offered the potential of both a stick and a carrot for Pep Guardiola’s side.
For Howe and his team, there would be an internal inquest whatever happened, but beyond that, his work is pretty much done. Newcastle, written off as relegation certainties after one win in 20 league games, are safe in mid-table after 10 wins from their last 16. But there were eyes on them, specifically to ascertain how far they had come since their post-January, transfer-infused turnaround under new ownership, specifically an ownership that have ambitions of being genuine challengers to City, rather than simple target practice, as they have been for far too long now. This was the second straight test of such magnitude after Liverpool’s victory at St James’ Park the previous weekend.
That there was enough time left in the season to analyse Newcastle’s performance against arguably the world’s best two sides without any lingering threat of a return to the Championship is a reflection of the lightning-fast progress made by Howe’s side and the first of many reasons to add perspective to any discourse after the game.
Not only were City itching to put right the wrongs from Madrid, meaning anybody who stood in their way was in for a test, but Newcastle, as Howe points out, did offer something in spells. Bruno Guimaraes was again excellent in the midfield, but outshone by the imperious, mesmerising Kevin de Bruyne who was at his best; Allan Saint-Maximin, who continues to be the subject of a rather mystifying character flip, criticised more lacking efficiency in his secondary defensive role than he is credited in an attacking sense, was the most potent threat once again. Nobody in black and white completed more dribbles, created more chances, won more duels or was fouled more times than the Frenchman.
Chris Wood’s tame header, Newcastle’s only real opening in the game at 0-0, it could be argued serve as proof of the point Saint-Maximin appeared to make in an interview with French media this week. When Wood was replaced by the returning Callum Wilson with the game already gone, the impact was clear. His rustiness perhaps led him to miss a key chance of his own, but Newcastle looked much more threatening with a mire rounded and mobile focal point. If anything can be taken from the game, it is something of which the hierarchy are already acutely aware: another high profile striker of a similar build and pedigree is needed next season.
But the narrative has developed further, with the suggestion of bars being raised and lessons learnt. It is easy to believe Newcastle see themselves as future rivals to City in the infancy of their origin story; some fans certainly do, with jovial taunts of “we’re richer than you” being heard from the away end. The aims may be the same long-term, but the notion that anybody learned anything, or Howe received a rude awakening, is way off the mark. Newcastle headed to the Etihad Stadium knowing what awaited them, and received the sort of beating they feared. There is nothing new in the suggestion that they are years off the pace set by two sides who would likely dominate any era.
Of course, they could have shown more in both games, but if the narrow scoreline against Liverpool didn’t tell the full story of their dominance, the big one here doesn’t quite do Newcastle justice either. Two goals came in stoppage time, after Phil Foden was introduced; where most sides would ease to a job well done, City go the other way. That spells bad news for any tiring opponent.
What this cannot be compared to is the embarrassing capitulation at Tottenham last month, when they conceded five from a goal up. Newcastle competed; they huffed and puffed, but were swept aside, like the rest of their mid-table counterparts.
Like any big result, there will be a desperation to make sweeping statements about what this all means, when in reality, normal service resumed. Newcastle have a long way to go to improve, but they knew that and anybody suggesting a few jokey chants from supporters means anything else is wide of the mark. Manchester City are looking increasingly like champions elect of the Premier League; anything but a chastening afternoon would have been a bonus.
To see the true new face of Newcastle, you need only glance at the table in December and look again now. They are improving, and that is good enough for everyone.