One day, and sooner than you think, this Newcastle side will be a frightening force in Europe. Once they can add a little craft to their graft, a little depth to a squad still stretched thin by a relentless schedule. Once they work out how to break down teams who do not simply let themselves be bullied. In short, once they work out how to win games like this.
Borussia Dortmund have now beaten them twice in a fortnight, and while Newcastle can still qualify for the last 16 it will probably need a win in Paris and a favour or two. Put this down as a learning experience: a lesson in how to blend physicality with creativity, how to change the angles of attack, how to get your forwards into the game and how to make sure your productive spells get rewarded.
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“A bit bruised,” was how Eddie Howe described his team in the aftermath. And while he was careful not to make excuses, it was clear that the exertions of their last five games – all bruising in their own ways – are beginning to erode not just the quality of players at his disposal but the burning intensity required to perform at their best. This is a squad reduced to 13 senior outfield players and, with Callum Wilson forced off at half-time with a tight hamstring, very possibly lacking a fit striker.
And so Howe was forced into a little selection gymnastics. Kieran Trippier and Tino Livramento combined on the right flank, but both looked far more comfortable when Trippier moved to the left in the second half. Anthony Gordon added energy and snap when he replaced Wilson at half‑time, and Miguel Almirón impressed too off the bench, but as Dortmund turned the screw late on Howe had nowhere left to turn.
If there is a certain puzzlement at how a team with access to the lavish Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia has found itself in this position, then remember too that the leanness and tightness of Howe’s squad has been one of Newcastle’s main assets on its rise up the Premier League.
A few reinforcements in January are probably inevitable. The big question, of course, is whether Newcastle will still be able to promise them Champions League football by the time the window opens.
Newcastle’s Sean Longstaff and Miguel Almirón react during their side’s 2-0 defeat. Photograph: Christopher Neundorf/EPA
Clearly at some point a gruelling schedule of two games a week was going to catch up with a team more used to playing one. Perhaps the most telling indicator of this was the first goal, which resulted from Dortmund inexplicably winning three loose balls in a row on the edge of the Newcastle area. Marcel Sabitzer gratefully gathered the last and rolled it across for Niclas Füllkrug to finish high into the net. When Howe posited afterwards that he didn’t “think Dortmund have seen the best Newcastle”, this was probably the kind of thing he meant.
For Edin Terzić, the Dortmund coach, Howe’s observation was the highest praise. Because to a large extent Dortmund did not allow Newcastle to play. They matched their opponents physically, cut off their out-balls into the channels, knew when to take the sting out of the game and knew when to clear their lines. Up front the imposing Füllkrug has added new dimensions to their attack, freeing up space for their creative players – Julian Brandt and Karim Adeyemi here, Donyell Malen and Gio Reyna at other times – to release chaos.
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Somehow Newcastle made it to half-time, where Howe donned his medical gloves and tweezers and set about patching them up as best he could. Off came Wilson. Off came the struggling Lewis Hall. And immediately Newcastle looked a more awkward prospect: more bodies in the centre, a higher press, more runners from deep and more varied angles of attack. It almost yielded a prompt response when Joelinton headed Livramento’s cross wide from six yards.
But Newcastle have never looked fully at ease trying to break teams down, and particularly not teams as strong and well drilled as Dortmund have been this season under Terzić. The second goal came, mystifyingly, from a poor Trippier cross, cleared long to Brandt, who galloped the length of the pitch in a two‑on‑one attack. With just Livramento in defence, the last scout forlornly defending the hut against a marine attack, Brandt simply went himself, and slotted into the corner.
Not that the travelling support was too morose about any of it. They spent the day camping in the bars and cafes of Dortmund, singing their songs, sinking their bottles of pilsner, simply enjoying the sensation of being somewhere important again, of being seen again. Newcastle’s fans have already made themselves at home in Europe. Their team, on the other hand, are still working things out.