FOR most of this season, there has been a fair amount of mitigation for Newcastle United’s struggles. A crippling injury list, particularly in certain key areas of the team. A hectic fixture schedule, exacerbated by the inevitable demands of playing in the Champions League for the first half of the campaign. Some tough calls in decisive moments, such as the decision to award Paris St Germain a stoppage-time penalty in the Parc des Princes.

On Saturday, however, things felt different. Yes, Newcastle still have some big-name absentees, but the team that lined up against Arsenal wasn’t a million miles off being Eddie Howe’s strongest XI. The Magpies went into the game off the back of a blank week, and have only played four games in the whole of February. On the day, there wasn’t really a significant refereeing call that went against them.

Yet, for all of that, Howe’s side still produced arguably their worst display of the season as they were blown away by an Arsenal team that probably deserved to win by an even greater margin than the final score of 4-1. So, as he swiftly turned his attention to tomorrow night’s FA Cup fifth-round tie at Blackburn Rovers, the Newcastle boss felt compelled to deliver a few home truths. There was no ranting and raving – that isn’t his style. But in his usual measured tones, Howe spelled out what he expects of his players in the remainder of the season, and left them in no doubt that a repeat of Saturday night’s no-show will be deemed completely unacceptable.

“Are some of the players playing for their future? I can’t disagree with that sentiment,” said Howe. “There have been performances where we’ve not been at our best and you can understand - we were disjointed, had players out of position, no substitutes, relying on 11 players continually. This game was different. I think it stands alone in that respect. We just did not perform, and we have to take responsibility for that.”

In the aftermath of Saturday’s defeat, much of the focus has been trained on Newcastle’s defensive frailties, which were once again apparent at the Emirates. Howe’s side have conceded 12 goals in their last four games, and shipped a remarkable 23 in their last eight league outings.

With Sven Botman and Dan Burn back in the fold, and Tino Livramento and Lewis Hall both available after their summer transfers, Howe is able to call upon his first-choice defence, yet the resolve and organisation that was the bedrock of Newcastle’s success last season appears to have completely disappeared.

“Of course, we're looking for solutions to everything,” said Howe. “There's the outcome which is the goals, of course, but there's a whole body of work that goes into how you defend. Whether that's how you press, how you defend in the mid-third of the pitch, how you defend towards the goal. Certainly, we need to do a better job.


“I think regardless of how you tactically set up, it's individuals doing their jobs and making sure you don't make individual errors. I think we've been guilty of a combination of a lot of those things in the last few weeks. We've proved we can defend, we've proved we can defend even recently and we've put in some really good performances. Certainly, we're capable, but we just need to deliver it consistently.”

Tomorrow’s game feels massive in the context of the remainder of Newcastle’s season, with a win at Ewood Park providing a passage into the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. Win tomorrow, and the Magpies will be 90 minutes away from a return to Wembley. So, while the season has been largely disappointing to this point, it could yet build to a stirring climax.

“We are still in the throes of deciding where this season ends up,” said Howe, whose side have already claimed FA Cup victories at Sunderland and Fulham this term. “Nothing is decided for or against us. I definitely want to squash that feeling that we are feeling sorry for ourselves because that has negative connotations. We need the players excited and ambitious, thinking brightly about the future. 

“I always have a positive outlook. I’ve been in football long enough that it changes very quickly, both for and against. You have to commit to everything you do, be at the best you can every day and hopefully if you do, good things are around the corner. This season can still be very special for us, but we have to make it happen.”