Newcastle United are cracking under the pressure. As they left Bournemouth on Saturday evening with injured bodies and tired minds, there were inevitable concerns that Eddie Howe’s side were beginning to unravel ahead of their first cup final in nearly a quarter of a century.
Even as their unbeaten run in the series stretched to 17 games on the south coast, it was clear that their dedicated efforts were starting to take their toll on the group.
Callum Wilson missed the trip to face his former club with a hamstring injury and Joe Willock was withdrawn in the first half with a similar problem, as he was unable to train for the week. In the second half, Allan Saint Maximin was withdrawn with a knee problem and Miguel Almiron was withdrawn with a suspected broken arm.
With Bruno Guimaraes serving a three-match ban following his red card in the Carabao Cup semi-final against Southampton, a small squad is being stretched to breaking point.
This weekend, Howe’s side entertain Liverpool in a game with plenty riding on the heels of a win over Newcastle – their only defeat in the league this season – at Anfield in August.
In an ideal world, Howe would freshen things up, rest and rotate with the Carabao Cup final against Manchester United looming the following weekend. The downfall from Bournemouth is that he can’t do that, with the squad particularly hampered in midfield and attack.
This was always the risk. Newcastle did not want to spend much money in January, preferring to keep their powder dry and allow more room for maneuver under Financial Fair Play rules during the summer.
Instead of signing another midfielder in the winter window, which was the plan at the start, Newcastle allowed one to leave – Jonjo Shelvey – and did not replace him. They also sold striker Chris Wood to Nottingham Forest, giving them the kind of physical target man they needed against Bournemouth coming off the bench.
The Newcastle hierarchy knew they were rolling the dice and gambling with their lack of recruitment and although Anthony Gordon arrived from Everton for £40million, the group of players Howe trusts are playing at the highest level less in February than at the beginning of the year. January.
Newcastle don’t have the same depth in their squad or options in terms of style of play they can adopt based on changing personnel. Howe has a pool of around 14 or 15 players who can be relied upon to maintain the high standards they have set themselves in this impressive campaign. The problem is, at least a third of those are injured or showing signs of mental and physical fatigue. Howe doesn’t like using that word – fatigue. He was privately concerned about this kind of language – and these kinds of excuses – being able to engage with the psyche of the training ground.
However, it is a question that was inflamed by injuries at the weekend. Fortunately, Telegraph Sport can reveal that most of those that have been fed in the last few days are not serious.
Wilson should be back against Liverpool and Saint-Maximin’s injury was a serious blow to the knee and the pressure rather than a muscle strain or broken bone.
Early indications are that Almiron has not broken any bones in his hand and will also be available against Liverpool. Willock could be in trouble, however, as he faces a race against time to be fit enough to play in the cup final.
Newcastle are still exceeding expectations greatly, they remain in fourth place in the table and on course to achieve some form of European football next term. But they look a lot more vulnerable than they did and the weekend reminded everyone just how vulnerable they are to injury.
Howe seems to have escaped the worst of it this time, but when you put your body through so much and demand high levels of physical intensity for the team to play at their best, eventually it will catch up you if you can’t swap and change your best XI.
Newcastle isn’t quite running on fumes, but the warning lights are flashing amber and have been for the past few weeks.