The word was that it had been an arranged marriage, organised behind Sandro Tonali’s back. Throughout Newcastle’s pre-season tour of the United States Eddie Howe’s £55m Italy midfielder appeared dispirited at times, surly even. It seemed his affections still lay elsewhere.
Italian journalists reported that the 23-year-old turned tearful when Milan told him the offer from north‑east England was too good to reject and Tonali subsequently described the move as a “very difficult decision” and the “start of a hard uphill journey”.
Six minutes into his Premier League debut, that ascent suddenly looked considerably less challenging. Tonali’s perfect volley proved the first goal in a 5-1 deconstruction of Aston Villa, illuminated by his 50-yard cross-field passes and three assists. Along the way a player sometimes likened to Andrea Pirlo reacquainted himself with joy and began embracing life as a Tyneside hero.
Tonali’s form dipped a little during last Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at Manchester City but should he help Newcastle secure a first top-tier victory against Liverpool since 2015 on Sunday all will be swiftly forgiven.
The normally restrained Howe talks about “falling in love” the first time he saw Tonali play for Milan. Within minutes he realised a player capable of operating in assorted midfield roles could accelerate Newcastle’s metamorphosis into a more possession-based side while liberating Bruno Guimarães to fulfil a more attacking brief.
With Joelinton reprising his best Patrick Vieira impersonation alongside them, Joe Willock soon to return following hamstring trouble, the similarly much-improved Sean Longstaff pushing to start and the talented 20-year‑old Elliot Anderson champing at the bit, Newcastle’s midfield looks strong. It is possibly their best engine room since the 90s when Rob Lee dictated that department for Kevin Keegan’s Entertainers.
Its composition also represents the start of phase two of Howe’s rebuild. Whereas the manager’s initial task involved weaning the team off the 3-4-3 formation, low block, low possession and heavy reliance on counterattacking inherited from Steve Bruce, the focus now is on ball retention and tempo control.
As important as Newcastle’s hard, high-pressing 4-3-3 system and mean defence proved in securing Champions League qualification, such high-energy tactics will take them only so far. Despite finishing fourth, Newcastle were the Premier League’s 12th most-accurate passing side last season.
Tonali should help. “He looks the absolute complete midfielder,” says the former Chelsea, Everton and Scotland winger Pat Nevin. “While everyone else runs around at top speed Tonali’s in complete control. He’s got Pirlo’s confident arrogance.”
His partnership with Guimarães looks integral to Newcastle’s ambitions but the Brazilian disappointed at Manchester City and subsequently became drawn into an ill-advised social media spat with fans. “When Bruno plays well our game goes to a different dimension,” says Howe. “But this has all been a little bit of a lesson for him. I’m certainly not going to criticise the supporters.”
Soaring expectations increase stress but the senior players know how to relieve it. Guimarães was apparently suitably amused to learn that Tonali and his fashion designer girlfriend had recently dined out at a local Wetherspoons. It is not the sort of place where multi-millionaire footballers routinely spend nights off and there are strong, if unconfirmed, rumours that the midfielder Matt Ritchie booked the table as a joke. If so, Tonali took it well, posing patiently for selfies with fellow diners.
Although Ritchie rarely starts these days the former Bournemouth winger is significantly a key member of Howe’s leadership group at a club that has had investment of around £400m in new playing talent since its Saudi Arabian-led takeover in October 2021.
It is probably no coincidence the band of leaders – Kieran Trippier, Jamaal Lascelles, Callum Wilson, Dan Burn and Ritchie – are all characters of the sort Sir Bobby Robson would have labelled “blue chip” men.
Despite hardly ever starting Lascelles remains club captain, ensuring the team’s stars – Guimarães, Tonali, Alexander Isak and Sven Botman – keep their feet firmly on terra firma while Howe concentrates on his forte: improving players.
Certainly Joelinton and Willock, to name just two, have come a long way since Howe’s first match in November 2021 – a 3-3 home draw with Brentford – when Jonjo Shelvey was the playmaker.
Back then, Willock possessed plenty of athleticism and technical ability but his once wayward decision-making has been transformed beyond recognition.
Joelinton, meanwhile, has been capped twice by Brazil since his conversion from non-scoring centre-forward to left-sided central midfielder. Both would surely have prospered alongside Lee during an era when Newcastle enjoyed some classic tussles with Liverpool.
“To be compared to The Entertainers is a huge compliment,” says Howe. “We’re here to win but we want to entertain, too. We’re desperate for our supporters to leave the stadium feeling they cannot wait for next week. I want my players to be remembered forever, to become club legends.”
In the process, he will harbour no inhibitions about upsetting managerial counterparts by playing hard or exploring legal gamesmanship’s outer borders. Howe and Jürgen Klopp already have a history of crossing swords but a coach who does not make friendships with rivals remains unperturbed.
“There’ll be moments and flashpoints on Sunday because Newcastle and Liverpool are two iconic clubs going against each other,” Howe says. “I don’t think it’s necessarily ramped up in the last two years but I find it very difficult to have personal relationships with competitors.”
So if Klopp suggests a ceasefire over a post-match drink would he refuse? “I wouldn’t necessarily be that short,” says Howe. “My office door’s always open to any opposing manager but it’s a ritual that’s dying slightly. I respect Jürgen a lot but friendships with other managers don’t exist for me. I draw a line.”