FIRST, the positives. Newcastle United have returned to the Champions League and proved they are not going to be embarrassed at Europe’s elite level despite finding themselves in the toughest group in this season’s competition.

They flew out of Milan on Tuesday evening with a valuable point on the board and are rediscovering the defensive solidity that served them so well last season. Yes, on another night, Milan might well have scored three or four goals, such was the extent of their dominance for long periods of the game. But Newcastle’s back four were well-organised and resolute, the overall work-rate of the team was outstanding and their goalkeeper, Nick Pope, made a series of excellent saves. Defensively, there was an awful lot to admire in Newcastle’s performance.

The problems came at the other end of the field, where the Magpies failed to lay a glove on their opponents before stoppage time, when Sean Longstaff finally fired in their first shot on target. Newcastle’s players spent most of Tuesday’s game defending, closing down opponents, blocking shots and making clearances, but on the fleeting moments when they did have the ball, the harsh reality is that they did not use it anywhere near effectively enough.


Passes went astray, Newcastle’s attacking players ran down blind alleys, and there was an overall lack of cohesion in the attacking third. The major question Eddie Howe will be wrestling with over the next few days is whether that was simply an inevitable consequence of the Magpies making their Champions League return, with all the emotions that entailed, against an AC Milan side who were good enough to make the semi-finals of the competition last season, or whether it was indicative of a more deep-rooted issue that has arguably been apparent throughout much of the opening two months of the season.

Longstaff felt it was the former, admitting that he and his team-mates underperformed when in possession, but insisting that things would improve once the novelty of playing in the Champions League wears off and Newcastle are back on home soil with a greater share of the ball.

“We’re disappointed we didn’t make enough of things when we did have the ball around the box,” said the Magpies midfielder. “We were maybe a bit too eager to try and make something happen, but we’re all learning about this level.

“It’s different to a Premier League game, and it is a learning curve. There were lots of positives in the end. We all put our bodies on the line and that is what is going to be needed to make a run at this and get out of the group. It’s a night we can probably build on.”

Howe’s reflections were broadly similar. The head coach praised his players for their defensive work and undoubted commitment, but also conceded they had been wasteful when in possession and hadn’t really looked like threatening the AC Milan goal until Longstaff’s late strike.

“We were slightly disappointed with how we played with the ball,” said Howe. “But there’s a lot of different reasons for that. I think any away game in the Champions League is very difficult – you can’t underestimate the challenge that brings.”

That is a fair point, and in what is likely to be an extremely tight group, Tuesday’s result could look extremely valuable by the time things are coming to a head later in the autumn. Borussia Dortmund lost at Paris St Germain on Tuesday, Celtic were beaten 2-0 in Feyenoord and Royal Antwerp, Champions League irregulars like Newcastle, were thrashed 5-0 in the Nou Camp. Champions League away days are anything but easy.

Are there bigger issues to address in the Newcastle attack though? The balance of the midfield remains a major issue, with the blend of Longstaff, Bruno Guimaraes and Sandro Tonali not really working. There isn’t a natural ‘number six’, which causes defensive problems, but also diminishes the attacking effectiveness of Newcastle’s midfielders as it means they are all responsible for carrying out defensive work.

The Northern Echo: Jacob Murphy can't find a way past AC Milan defender Fikayo TomoriJacob Murphy can't find a way past AC Milan defender Fikayo Tomori (Image: PA)

The absence of both Joe Willock and Joelinton is an issue, as the pair provide the kind of attacking energy and thrusting running that was largely absent on Tuesday. Willock, in particular, provides a markedly different attacking threat to either Guimaraes or Tonali with his willingness to break into the box and look to get a shot away, and his importance to the general balance of the Newcastle side has been accentuated in his absence. Having suffered an Achilles injury just as he was completing his recovery from a separate hamstring problem, he is set to be absent for a few more weeks yet.

Anthony Gordon has produced flashes this season, most notably in the first half against Liverpool, but is yet to fully convince as an upgrade on Allan Saint-Maximin, while Howe’s surprise decision to start with Jacob Murphy on Tuesday did not really go as planned. Murphy’s work rate was commendable, but his decision-making with the ball was often poor. That he was preferred to both Miguel Almiron and Harvey Barnes, though, perhaps says much about where Howe feels those two players currently stand in the pecking order.

In attack, while Alexander Isak’s all-round game is probably superior to Callum Wilson’s, it is Wilson who remains the more reliable goalscorer. Howe will almost certainly continue rotating the duo, but perhaps it is time to give renewed thought to how they could best be incorporated into the same starting line-up.

Newcastle will have to improve as an attacking force if they are to give themselves a genuine chance of getting out of their Champions League group, but at least after Tuesday, they will head into their back-to-back home games against Paris St Germain and Borussia Dortmund from a position of relative strength. Defensively, they have proved they are Champions League ready. The next challenge is to start posing a threat themselves.