Sean Longstaff’s recent form shows his importance to Newcastle
In a week when Sandro Tonali, Newcastle United’s £52m Italian midfielder, was under the spotlight, Sean Longstaff did his best to go under the radar.
Tonali’s arrival from AC Milan was billed as a seminal moment in the next chapter for Newcastle. After qualifying for the Champions League well ahead of the schedule devised by their mega-rich owners upon their takeover in October 2021, they needed to recruit both experienced in and capable of performing at Europe’s top table. Eddie Howe has been impressed by Tonali’s role in helping AC Milan reach last season’s Champions League semi-finals, and it was a seismic moment when they were able to lure him from his boyhood club. But a difficult night on his first return to the San Siro in the opening group game of this season’s competition turned some attention on him.
Howe had said in his press conference before Sunday’s emphatic 8-0 win over Sheffield United at Bramall Lane shed some light on his situation. Since scoring on his Premier League debut against Aston Villa last month, Tonali has trained just once fully. Given he is already navigating the difficulty of moving to a new country, league and culture at the tender age of 23, a lack of time in which he is able to grow a rapport with teammates means slack needs to be cut for the Italian for the time being.
But the success of any Newcastle midfielder is predicated on their link-up with Bruno Guimaraes as it is their own performance. Gradually over recent weeks, issues with the understanding and flow between the pair had developed. It wasn’t a shock to see Tonali dropped to bench at Bramall Lane.
Longstaff, meanwhile, has taken his opportunity. Far from the most glamorous name on the teamsheet, perhaps he represented the most obvious place to upgrade. But last season, when he was injured, the lack of functionality told for Newcastle and so proved the case again earlier in this campaign.
Eddie Howe, the Newcastle manager, praised his side’s character and motivation after the game, which Longstaff embodied more than most.
“First of all we had to attack the game in the way that we normally would,” he told reporters.
“We had to be ready for what they would throw at us, try and quieten the crowd and we started really well and got the goal early. That settled us down and we played some really good football after that.
“It shows you that the players were very motivated for the game. They were hungry for goals and for success.
“I do think we’ve got a really motivated group. I see really good character traits throughout the whole squad. It’s a long season for us. We’ve got a lot of challenges to come but certainly the last week has been a return to form for us.”
Guimaraes has looked far more composed and effective in the middle with Longstaff next to him. After a difficult run of games, his improvement began in the win over Brentford, continued at the San Siro and was particularly evident in Sheffield.
Though the Blades’ energy and harrying was short-lived, Newcastle were able to find space for runs and passes with ease throughout. Longstaff filled in the gaps for the Brazilian that Tonali wasn’t before; if anything, the fourth goal summed up what both Longstaff and Guimaraes are like at their best; in tandem, never too far away from one another and always progressive.
But Longstaff had already opened the scoring in the first half, showcasing his ability to get forward and make a decisive impact in that sense. Such criticism had long been levelled at him, and what makes him one of the key opinions for Eddie Howe is his willingness to run and cover ground in defensive situations, but it was he who set Newcastle’s dominance in motion all the way back in the 21st minute.
Guimaraes was the man who fully deserved to put the icing on the cake on what could have been a day to shatter all records for Newcastle. He is set to sign a new two-year contract extension at St James’ Park and a return to his very best form is most welcome as the Magpies embark on a campaign on all fronts.
But on more then one occasion at Bramall Lane, as has been the pattern of recent weeks, he had his dovetail with Longstaff to thank.