Eddie Howe has said he doesn’t know if he will meet Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah next week, but any talks with Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler will be considerably easier after this.
The Newcastle manager won’t take his players to a warm-weather training camp on the Red Sea coast until Sunday, but when the final whistle blew he looked like a man feeling the sun on his back for the first time in a long and harsh winter.
Jonjo Shelvey’s second-half free kick secured Howe’s Saudi-owned side for just their second win of the season, lifting Newcastle to the dizzying heights of 18th. They still have just 15 points but are just one down on Norwich, four less than Everton and only seven behind Leeds; Suddenly, one of the Premier League’s biggest escapes seems feasible.
Marcelo Bielsa’s alternately desperate and enraged body language highlighted the seriousness of this blow for his Leeds side who, not for the first time, failed to convert dominance into goals before undoing a set piece.
Gareth Southgate watched from the stands and, after witnessing some of the early wobbles amongst the Newcastle defence, the 51-year-old England manager might well have imagined his chances of turning back the years and getting a game in the centre-half for the Howes team.
Only a fine save from point-blank range by Martin Dubravka prevented Dan James from shooting after a wonderfully fluid attacking play that also featured Rodrigo and Raphinha. Skillful and quick, Leeds persistently dissected Newcastle with the ease of a knife through butter. Paul Dummett is an underrated, positionally savvy left-back, but he joined a long list of counterparts who have struggled to contain Raphinha.
On the opposite flank, Stuart Dallas made a huge impression as an attacking left-back for Bielsa’s side and his dangerous attacking forays frequently prevented Howe’s right-back Kieran Trippier from acting as the visiting attacking catalyst.
The resulting center shortage left Newcastle’s £25m Leeds centre-forward Chris Wood largely isolated, with his side’s main hope of a goal depending on the kind of bizarre brilliant counter-attacking moment that concluded. with Ilan Meslier doing very well to stop Shelvey’s volley.
Overall, though, Meslier was well-protected by a 4-1-4-1 system with Robin Koch, Bielsa’s German central half, doing a decent job serving as a midfield anchor in the long-lasting injury-induced absence of Kalvin Phillips. Koch’s influence emphasized Howe’s need for a midfield enforcer in addition to at least one new central defender.
Bielsa could have done it without Patrick Bamford being, once again, sidelined with injury. In the absence of their key striker, Leeds were unable to assert their dominance and dynamism and had no one to polish Raphinha’s deliveries.
If Howe’s side invariably seemed to struggle when Leeds moved the ball wide, Bielsa became agitated whenever Allan Saint-Maximin took possession for Newcastle. It wasn’t Saint-Maximin’s best game, but it still baffled a Leeds side unable to capitalize on Jamaal Lascelles’ central defensive weaknesses.
The Newcastle captain hasn’t been at his best of late and here Lascelles repeatedly lost possession, often around the halfway line. In fact, he got hurt trying to win back one of those possession concessions and limped off to be replaced by Ciaran Clark.
By then, Howe had already lost Joelinton and Dummett to injury, but, for once, all was not against him. When Diego Llorente dragged in the overlapping Javier Manquillo, instead of Dummett, Leeds conceded a free kick from a dangerous position outside the box.
Shelvey doubled it low and evaded everyone on the way past a previously confident but terribly poorly footed Meslier, who could only help the ball on its journey to the back of the net.
After Llorente cleared the line to deny Ryan Fraser, Saint-Maximin was furious that he didn’t get a penalty after being tipped over by Koch and Meslier cleverly saved to avoid Joe Willock’s shot.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism