NEWCASTLE: Eddie Howe believes Newcastle United’s trip to leaders Arsenal is a litmus test for the club’s Champions League ambitions.
The Magpies signed off an impressive 2022 with an underwhelming point against a well-organized but struggling Leeds United side at the weekend — but nevertheless sit in third place in the Premier League as they head to the Emirates.
While Howe has steered clear of talking his team up as title or top-four contenders, he does think taking on the best tomorrow night will show just how far his side have progressed.
“We’ll learn a lot,” said the Newcastle head coach. “It’ll be a fascinating and high-level game. I’ve watched a lot of Arsenal this year and been hugely impressed. I think Mikel (Arteta) has done an incredible job. You look at the turnaround of the team and how they play, their identity is clear every week.
“Players look like they’re enjoying their football and playing a high level game. It’s going to be a really good examination of how far we’ve come.”
Howe’s first proper game in charge came in the same fixture last season, having been forced to sit out an earlier dugout debut due to contracting COVID-19.
Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli netted in a one-sided win for the Gunners in November 2021 as Howe was still getting to grips with his squad low on morale after the two-year tenure of Steve Bruce.
A lot has changed in that time — and not just for United.
On Arsenal, Howe said: “I just think they’ve continued to grow from that moment. They were on a journey of improvement throughout last season. This season they’ve really carried that on and gone again.
“The consistency has been hugely impressive for me, home or away, they’ve got the hallmark of a team that is free-flowing, scoring a lot of goals and are tight defensively, so a really good examination for us.”
Howe admits United go everywhere to win now — including Arsenal. That approach is a far cry from that of Magpies managers before him.
“There are certain times in games where you might need that mindset within the game but I think as a starting point, how do you grow if that is your consistent way of approaching these types of games? I’m not sure you can,” he said.
“We’ve tended not to go down that route, we want players to believe they can win every game and in order to do that, you have to prepare as you believe you can win the game, so we try to be consistent with that.
“But within the game, there may be moments where you have to go ‘right, batten down the hatches and see the game out,’ or whatever the situation requires. But in our preparation, those won’t be our messages.”
One player key to the Magpies’ recent rise has been midfielder Joe Willock.
Picked up from Tuesday’s opponents before Howe’s arrival, Willock has excelled with his energetic performances and will go back to his former home with a point to prove, particularly being a boyhood Gunner.
“I’ve been really pleased with Joe,” said Howe.
“He’s maturing nicely and I think he’s got really good raw ability. He’s very athletic, got an eye for goal, technically very good and tactically improving. He’s been excellent for me, I’ve forged a good relationship with him, I really like him as a person.
“The big thing with Joe is I know there is a lot more in there as well, there’s a lot more to come. I’m excited about his future.”
United head to London without two players, with Matt Targett and Jonjo Shelvey carrying injuries that will keep them out until around the end of February.
Callum Wilson could feature despite not fully recovering from illness. Martin Dubravka has also returned from his Manchester United loan spell and could take a place on the bench.
On whether the injuries to Targett and Shelvey had altered his January transfer thinking, Howe said: “If we didn’t sign anybody, we didn’t sign anybody. I love the group, I think we’ve got a really strong team.
“The thing we have to guard against, of course, at this time of year, is injuries and every player we lose is a blow and it does open up potential weaknesses in the squad.
“We’re very aware of that. I think when you look at Jonjo and Matt Targett’s injury, we don’t quite know how long they’ll be out but I don’t think either of them are long-term so we will get them back.
“We obviously have to think about that as well so there’s a lot to take in.”