One month after escaping the Premier League’s bottom three for the first time all season, Newcastle United could move 10 points clear of the drop zone with victory at Southampton on Thursday.
It is an astonishing transformation under Eddie Howe, so much so that Newcastle’s form over the last eight matches is that of top-four contenders, with only Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City picking up more points in that period.
Newcastle, who did not even win a game until December, are unbeaten in their last eight, winning five and drawing three and conceding just five goals.
But what has been behind the change in fortune?
While the takeover by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) in October offered Newcastle the chance to buy their way out of trouble, the improvement cannot be explained purely by a splurge of January spending.
The statement signing of England right back Kieran Trippier from Atletico Madrid was followed by Brighton & Hove Albion centre back Dan Burn, Burnley striker Chris Wood and midfielder Bruno Guimaraes, as well as left back Matt Targett on loan.
Trippier, now injured, helped galvanise the squad while Burn and Guimaraes have given Newcastle a solid spine. Wood is yet to score, but Howe has been full of praise for the target man.
“I think he’s been outstanding since he’s arrived,” Howe said on Wednesday. “He does a lot of the things people don’t necessarily see but he’s had a dramatic effect on the team.
“He’s given us the ability to retain the ball from loads of different situations.”
Newcastle’s astute January business has clearly helped, but Howe must also take enormous credit for the way he has tweaked Newcastle’s system rather than rip everything up and start again, which might have been a temptation.
What is clear is that Newcastle are now much harder to play against, thanks to a much more aggressive and compact approach out of possession, pressing the ball from front to back.
Swiss centre back Fabian Schar has been given a run in the team and his comfort on the ball, together with the shield of Guimaraes in front, has allowed Newcastle to construct attacks from the back rather rely on a long pass to French winger Allan Saint-Maximin in the hope he can produce some magic.
Howe has also turned Joe Willock into a more complete player, with the former Arsenal midfielder now working tirelessly in midfield, while Wood, despite no goals, offers Newcastle control in the final third with his ability to keep possession under pressure.
Most of all Howe, tipped as a future England manager, has given Newcastle an identifiable style and created a sense of pride in performance that seemed to be lacking.
“I think with the run we’ve been on I’ve been reluctant to change things because the team had lacked rhythm for a long time so when you get it you want to try and enhance not disrupt it,” Howe said. “But it doesn’t mean I don’t believe in the players I’m not using, that’s the key thing.
“I believe they can all play a huge role in the future, but I’ve just got to deal with the here and now.”