SINCE taking over as Newcastle United head coach a fortnight ago, Eddie Howe has tweaked a number of things. He has instructed his side to play higher up the field, and encouraged his midfielders to be quicker to break into the box. He has focused on improving his players’ fitness levels, enabling them to make more fast-paced runs. He has spoken at length about the intensity of his side’s performance, particularly when it comes to pressing when out of possession.

The effects of his early work were apparent in his absence on Saturday, but as he watched his side’s 3-3 draw with Brentford from his quarantine-secure hotel room, he will no doubt have cursed the one thing he cannot change, at least until January. Much as he would no doubt like to, Howe cannot alter the identity of his defenders. So, as much as he might improve things at one end of the field, deep-rooted problems will inevitably remain at the other.

That was certainly the case at the weekend, with Newcastle’s effervescent attacking display rendered somewhat irrelevant by a porous defensive performance in keeping with the error-strewn outings that have peppered the opening three months of the season, and that explain why the Magpies find themselves at the foot of the table.

Ivan Toney has improved markedly since Newcastle released him in 2018, but on Saturday, his former club’s defensive shortcomings made the 25-year-old look all-but-unplayable. Similarly, in Rico Henry and Sergi Canos, Brentford possessed a pair of wing-backs that ended up resembling Ben Chilwell and Reece James at their best, such was the lack of defensive nous or organisation posited against them.

In the space of one game, Howe has surely worked out that Matt Ritchie and Jacob Murphy are not good enough defenders to play as part of either a four or five-man defence. The problem, as Steve Bruce discovered, is that the most obvious alternatives – Jamal Lewis and Javier Manquillo – are not really any more defensively secure.

Similarly, while Fabian Schar and Ciaran Clark both struggled to cope with the pace and movement of Toney and Bryan Mbuemo, it is hard to imagine that Emil Krafth would have fared any better. Federico Fernandez might have been an upgrade, but having dropped out of favour under Graeme Jones, for some reason the fully-fit Argentinian once again failed to even make the squad at the weekend.

The issue would not be so chronic if Newcastle possessed a top-class defensive midfielder, but they do not. Howe did away with one entirely, opting to pair Jonjo Shelvey with Joe Willock, and while the combination helped increase the Magpies’ attacking threat in Brentford’s defensive third, it left Newcastle wide open whenever their opponents counter-attacked. Again, though, the evidence of the season so far suggests Howe could have picked Isaac Hayden, Sean Longstaff or Jeff Hendrick, and given the limitations, the outcome would probably have the same.

As a result, for everything that worked when Newcastle poured forward, there was something going wrong when they were asked to defend. Jamaal Lascelles headed home the first goal of the Howe era in the tenth minute; it took Brentford just eight touches of the ball to equalise after the restart with Toney firing home.

Joelinton’s low finish cancelled out Henry’s back-post header to ensure the scores were level at half-time, but it only felt a matter of time before Brentford reestablished their lead, and sure enough, Lascelles’ 61st-minute own goal, which saw him deflect Frank Onyeka's shot into his own net, put Newcastle on the back foot again.

To their credit, they rallied to claim another equaliser, with Allan Saint-Maximin slotting home a first-time volley from a Ryan Fraser cross, but when Joelinton was presented with a golden opportunity for a winner with eight minutes left, he lost his footing in the area and the chance went begging.