Kieran Trippier and Nick Pope have been instrumental in Newcastle’s strong start to the season that sees them sit inside the top four.
If you had drawn up a shopping list of players that would take Newcastle United into the Premier League’s top four for the first time in more than a decade, you may have included a talented Brazilian – some of the more outlandish suggestions on where the Saudi dollars would be spent included Neymar, but it was the midfielder Bruno Guimaraes who arrived, from Lyon – but did you have on it a goalkeeper signed from Burnley and a 32-year-old England defender?
Newcastle’s success will continue to be caveated by some due to the Saudi-led consortium from whose investment the club have benefited, but while they have admittedly splashed the cash, they have also recruited good players. Kieran Trippier, the right back, epitomises that. Widely considered a positive character and leader in the dressing room, he was welcomed back to his former club Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday with hearty applause.
The Liverpool manager, Jurgen Klopp, has bracketed Newcastle along with Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain as three clubs who can “do what they want financially”. In reality, Newcastle’s transfer strategy has been more evolutionary than revolutionary. The club’s net spend in the two transfer windows since Newcastle became the richest club in the world after the takeover in October last year is pounds 211 million.
Trippier, signed from Atletico Madrid in January for pounds 12 million, leads the table as the most valuable defender in the popular Fantasy Premier League (FPL) game. In his 12 matches he has a goal, an assist and five clean sheets, which all register points. But perhaps more tellingly he is a regular scorer of bonus points, the system used to reward the best players on the pitch. It is his influence which that metric highlights, and can easily be overlooked.
Against Tottenham it was clear that his position is an integral part of Newcastle’s play. He is a right back out of possession, but when in possession he largely occupies the right wingback role he often plays for England.
That Trippier has been an England regular under Gareth Southgate has sometimes been contentious among fans, but it is clear that both his international and club managers trust him implicitly.
His set-piece delivery did not result in a goal on Sunday but was continually dangerous, and he made several last-ditch blocks in the penalty area. He will be disappointed in his defending – having allowed Harry Kane to out-muscle him for Tottenham’s goal – although that he was left to defend a player significantly taller than him is questionable.
If it was not Trippier with his body on the line to deny a Tottenham forward, then it was Nick Pope. The 30-year-old goalkeeper, who joined from Burnley for pounds 12 million in the summer, is another FPL favourite and made two crucial saves with the score at 0-0, first from Son Heung-min, before a block with his outstretched boot to deny Kane.
Trippier and Pope also led the game-management tactics that frustrated Tottenham throughout the second half, and for which Pope received a yellow card late on. The team need players prepared to do the dirty work alongside the flair of Guimaraes and the pace and trickery of Miguel Almiron, and that attitude impressed Eddie Howe, their head coach.
“So far what we have delivered, I think it’s been based on a real unity, togetherness, characters within the changing room being very motivated, driven to do well,” he said. “Everybody within the group is wanting success for the teammate over any individual. I can’t credit the group enough for the conditions that they’ve created for me to work with my coaching team.”
The irony was not lost on Newcastle’s travelling fans as they walked past the Sports Direct a few yards away from the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, a reminder of their former owner Mike Ashley as they embarked on this new, heady adventure.
In the upcoming transfer windows there will undoubtedly be an array of names linked to Newcastle and their shiny, attractive project, particularly if they can continue the trajectory that has led them to the Champions League places, with a favourable run of fixtures before the break for the World Cup. But how good are Newcastle, and are they genuine contenders to compete with the European elite next season?
The 2-1 victory over Tottenham was perhaps the most impressive of Howe’s tenure in its completeness, and was fully deserved, but as the manager pointed out after the match, being able to compete with the best in the country is not something that will happen overnight – they still require a near-perfect performance to do so.
“I think it shows we can compete if we get our A game together,” Howe said. “[If] we turn up and give the best account we can of ourselves, I think we could beat anybody if we do that.”
In and out of possession, Newcastle caused Tottenham problems, and as Alan Shearer, the former striker, reflected in his BBC Sport column: “Their win was another example of how Newcastle are starting to upset some of the big boys – and they don’t like it.”
Their tenacity across the pitch from the first moments unsettled Tottenham, but as good as the visiting side were, Antonio Conte’s team were missing the usually ever-present midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, and, bar the chances from their strike force of Kane and Son, struggled to create.
Oliver Skipp, in his first Premier League start since January, contributed to a makeshift midfield and affected Tottenham more than the organised Newcastle press, which Shearer praised in his column. If Newcastle can replicate that performance against Aston Villa and Southampton, before the visit of Chelsea to St James’ Park, they could well enter the World Cup break fighting for Champions League football. At this stage, though, the lower echelons of European football are a more realistic target. To reach that, they will need to bolster their squad again in January.
Pope and Trippier serve as reminders that successful recruitment can take many different forms; experience, character and desire, as well as talent, can prove invaluable in ruffling the feathers of the established order.
– The Times
Originally published as Smart recruitment, not big spending, turned Newcastle United into European contenders