So slick was the ascent in Newcastle's first full season under new ownership most onlookers assume the Saudi oil glugging into St. James' Park will glide them all the way to the top.
It’s a story we’ve seen before and indeed the story of the current Premier League champions.
Except things just aren’t that simple anymore.
Manchester City, currently under investigation for alleged Financial Fair Play (FFP) breaches, have made the Premier League more vigilant to creative accounting and the potential malevolence of nation states dictating the terms of competition.
Case in point, notice how alert and quick-acting Premier League clubs were to Allan Saint-Maximin’s proposed transfer to Al-Ahli, a Saudi Arabian club also owned by the nation’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which has even prompted Eddie Howe to publicly state his belief the deal will be “above board”.
The wriggle room that was afforded to disruptive owners of the past has gone. Newcastle are reportedly struggling to make the sponsorship deals they had hoped would materialise, and as Man City take a commercial and reputational hit from court cases that continue to drag on, Newcastle’s owners suddenly seem a little clipped.
To put it another way, they are playing by the rules - working within FFP.
Ironically, so far PIF’s involvement at Newcastle has undermined the team’s reputation, masking Howe’s incredible overachievement by presenting it to the public as Newcastle buying their way to fourth. In reality, that supposed wealth is a misrepresentation of the FFP surplus left by frugal former owner Mike Ashley, and since the Saudis arrived Newcastle have spent only a little bit more than the likes of Aston Villa or West Ham United.
Unfortunately, praise for Howe is bad news for Newcastle fans, who may find that their remarkable and under-celebrated success of finishing fourth last year is not replicable in 2023/24, a year in which Villa appear on the verge of leapfrogging above them just as Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur start on the road to recovery.
So far this summer Newcastle have spent £90 million on two players, Sandro Tonali and Harvey Barnes, and with Howe recently acknowledging “frustrations and difficult days”, there is reportedly only a modest pot remaining. Southampton right-back Tino Livramento has been the subject of a rejected £30 million and if Newcastle can reach an agreement he is likely to be last incoming player.
This does not compare particularly favourably to Villa in particular, who have broken their club record to sign Moussa Diaby for £51.9 million after bringing in Youri Tielemans and Pau Torres. When considering Villa’s rise under Unai Emery, it is by no means a given that Newcastle will again finish above Villa.
In fact, the league table from January 1 shows Villa four points clear of Newcastle, with Howe’s team ranking seventh over the second half of the campaign – and just one point above Brentford.
If that all sounds a little pessimistic, the alternative perspective is that Newcastle only lost five league matches last season which, finishing 18 points behind Man City, means turning nine draws into wins – that’s just nine goals, in theory - would take Howe’s side all the way to the title. The margins are thin in this sport, even if, retrospectively, we talk about the action with narrative certainty.
Nevertheless watching Newcastle matches last season gave the impression of over-performance; of an opportunistic team that used a strong defensive setup to grind out wins in matches that could have gone either way. Howe’s tactics are a little difficult to read, in fact, in that his team are neither possession-centric nor deep-lying, neither playing out from the back nor hitting it long, instead focusing on fast transitions that begin within a compressed central midfield area.
It is a rare hybrid way of playing – a halfway house between the Newcastle of old and where they ultimately aim to be – that often appears to lack the positional sophistication that Emery or Roberto de Zerbi brought to the Premier League, or that Ange Postecoglou is expected to implement at Tottenham Hotspur. That is not intended to downplay Howe’s superb work, but rather to question its long-term viability when the competition is improving.
Newcastle’s new signings will not necessarily help maintain the gap. Sandro Tonali is a very good central midfielder but it is unclear whether his combative style will be suited to the number eight role under Howe, whose team can already lack creative energy in the centre of the park and, to start dominating games territorially, will require more subtlety – and goals - in this area.
Harvey Barnes is a talented winger but he isn’t particularly consistent, and while that explosiveness off the left fits snugly with Howe’s sudden tempo changes out of central midfield, Barnes is only a minor upgrade on the departing Saint-Maximin. It is telling that Spurs, who finished eighth last season, have attracted the better Leicester City player, James Maddison, while Newcastle settled for Barnes after reportedly losing out on Diaby to Villa.
Put altogether, if it wasn’t for the illusion of permanent sunlit uplands provided by the Saudi ownership, if instead Newcastle’s top four finish was seen for the brilliant and unexpected overachievement that it was, there would be more concern regarding the scale of their summer recruitment drive.
Certainly Howe understands this, judging by his recent comments regarding the need to add depth, and judging by the new 3-4-3 formation trialled in a 3-3 friendly draw with Villa over the weekend.
“We are aware of the amount of competitions we are in next season,” Howe said. “There is a feeling that we are going to need to be flexible next season.”
It didn’t go particularly well, with Villa creating plenty of chances against a two-man midfield of Tonali and Bruno Guimaraes, and it is highly likely Howe will revert to a 4-3-3 when they face Villa in their Premier League opener. Yet to even attempt something drastically new speaks, perhaps, to some uncertainty about what next season will look like when dealing with three games a week.
The step up to playing Champions League football alongside the Premier League will no doubt have an impact on Newcastle, but not as much as the rejuvenated competition beginning to surround them. Manchester United and Liverpool both promise more in 2023/24, and at the time of writing arguably Brighton are the only club in last season’s top eight who have failed to improve to a greater degree than Newcastle over the summer.
A year ago, nobody expected Newcastle to be thinking so deeply about FFP, or expected that their first window before a Champions League campaign would be so underwhelming compared to other clubs with extremely wealthy backers. They are learning that the parameters have shifted; that English football is a little wiser than it was when Man City elbowed their way to the top.
Newcastle are in the strongest and happiest position we have seen them this century. But in this day and age not even owners with unlimited funds can guarantee the upward trajectory remains and there is every chance that 2023/24 could be a case of second season syndrome for Howe, a man PIF settled for after bigger names turned them down. In time, we may come to see last May’s Champions League qualification not as the beginning, but as the peak - of the Howe era, at least.