'That’s the biggest challenge' – SEVEN Newcastle United selection dilemmas facing Eddie Howe ahead of Brentford

Eddie Howe has a number of selection dilemmas ahead of his first game in charge of Newcastle United.

Thursday, 18th November 2021, 4:45 pm

Our writer Jordan Cronin takes a look at the tough decisions facing Howe ahead of Brentford’s visit to St James’s Park on Saturday afternoon:

The formation

Howe often adopted a 4-4-2 or a 4-4-1-1 formation at Bournemouth with emphasis on playing on the front foot – but will he see fit at Newcastle immediately?

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Newcastle United head coach Eddie Howe is facing a number of selection dilemmas. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

The Magpies have been a shambles defensively this term, leaking 24 goals in their opening 11 Premier League games, a total only Norwich City have beaten. That’s an average of just over two goals a game.

In a flat back four under Steve Bruce, United were sliced open. A switch to a back five last season seen the club surge to safety but when Graeme Jones tried similar during his interim period, it did very little to change fortunes.

Howe, despite criticism over the lack of clean sheets and goals conceded on the south coast, stuck to his guns with the mentality that attack is the best form of defence.

In United’s case, it’s all about getting the balance right, something that his predecessor could never quite crack.

Howe needs time to implement his methods but there is pressure to deliver from the off ahead of a brutal Christmas schedule.

That’s the biggest challenge.

Martin Dubravka recall

Dubravka stepped up his return from foot surgery before the international break – featuring on the bench against Chelsea and Brighton.

Jones spoke previously about Dubravka needing minutes on the pitch, which he got after playing 90 minutes in Slovakia’s 6-0 win over Malta on Sunday.

The 32-year-old is United’s number one and there isn’t much to dispute that, despite Karl Darlow being more than a capable deputy.

However, Howe may judge that differently on initial viewing. Darlow, who has started the last seven matches, has been ever-present on Tyneside since Howe’s arrival, whereas Dubravka has been out the country.

There is, of course, Freddie Woodman but the former Swansea City loanee has barely got a mention, despite starting the campaign in between the sticks.

Reprieve for fringe players

Five players who became forgotten men under Bruce were Jamal Lewis, Fabian Schar, Dwight Gayle, Jeff Hendrick and Ryan Fraser.

Lewis and Schar return to the North East having impressed on international duty. Interestingly, both players possess attributes that fit Howe’s preferred style.

At Bournemouth, a lot of responsibility was placed on the full-backs to get forward, something which a pacey Lewis relishes.

Howe likes his defenders to be comfortable on the ball and Schar is without doubt the best at that in United’s backline.

If Howe does indeed go with two strikers, does that open a new door for Dwight Gayle, who has been starved of first-team action? He signed a three-year deal in the summer but has played just 20 minutes of league football since.

Jeff Hendrick has been absent from a midfield that has struggled immensely as games past them by.

Supporters might not give a great appraisal of Hendrick but each player is entitled to a fresh start. He did well against Burnley in the Carabao Cup and scored at Wolves.

Then you’ve got Ryan Fraser, a player whose career was transformed by Howe after working under him for seven years.

United’s fringe players aren’t bad options. Certainly, Lewis, Schar and Fraser are in with a realistic shout of becoming a Howe regular.

The midfield problem

For all the criticism that United’s defenders have received, the midfield players have done their teammates zero favours.

The likes of Isaac Hayden and Sean Longstaff have more often than not been static. Jonjo Shelvey is the same, but his passing ability has been a miss.

It’s an area that has lacked serious legs and energy and perhaps the major pitfall to that is Joe Willock’s significant dip in form.

Joe Willock and Miguel Almiron’s form

It would have been wrong to expect Willock to reach the goalscoring heights he hit during his remarkable loan spell – seven goals in seven games – but no goals and no assists this season is a huge drop-off.

That is a big selection issue in itself, how to get the former Arsenal youngster firing again because he’s already proven how influential he can be.

Will Miguel Almiron continue in midfield? He can be key during the defence to attack phase but as a central midfielder, he’s often looked like a lost puppy.

Getting the most out of the attackers

Howe knows how to get the best out of Callum Wilson, so that won’t be a problem. Allan Saint-Maximin is a different conundrum, however.

Simply, Saint-Maximin makes Newcastle tick. If the Frenchman isn’t performing, then chances for Wilson are at a premium.

And the former Nice winger hasn’t been anywhere near his creative best since scoring in the 1-1 draw at home to Leeds in mid-September. That must change.

For all the chaos the 24-year-old can cause in the wide areas, he’s proven to be an even greater threat through the centrre, particularly at the latter end of last season at the start of this.

Is a number 10 role the best way to deploy Saint-Maximin, or should he partner Wilson, as he did at times under Bruce?

Maybe there’s more to come from Joelinton too. There is a belief the Brazilian can be developed further, albeit not into someone who can live up to his £40m price tag – but that’s not his fault.

The returning internationals

Dubravka, Schar, Emil Krafth, Lewis, Hendrick and Almiron missed Howe’s first week-and-a-half of intense training through international.

During that period, Howe will undoubtedly work on shape, structure and more. Will those above need an additional week to get up to speed?

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