Newcastle United once again fall into the Championship, writer Chri Holt gives his thoughts on the season (and beyond) ahead and whether there is real room for fresh optimism under Rafa Benitez and…Mike Ashley.
The players that have come in?
The money in the game has become so crazy that we have already spent more in this window alone (£40m) than in all but one entire previous season (£82m in 15/16). The fact we’re doing this in the championship rather than the Premier League makes it an incredible stat. It also makes the underinvestment in recent Premier League seasons that culminated in relegation (and throwing money at the problem) a bitter pill to swallow.
Investment is also in stark contrast to the last time we were relegated and spent nothing whatsoever. While this willingness to spend has pleased me, I can’t help but feel short changed on the quality it’s attracted, through no fault of the club. I’m no judge of any of the individuals brought in who I can’t have seen play 90 minutes many more times than they came up against Newcastle. I can’t imagine many kids immediately rushing out to get any of their names on their shirts though.
That said, you can see the thinking behind every one of them. Whereas previously we’ve bought bargains that seemed to be inexplicable in terms of squad requirements, we’re clearly buying to fill gaps. An experienced right back likely to provide important cover where we had none. A proper winger having played at least one makeshift winger in every game for at least 3 years. A backup(?) keeper with champions league experience rather than only academy experience. A defensive midfielder with the upcoming departure of Tiote and the failure of any other pretenders to show anything like his best form. A couple of centre backs having been short and discarded one whose performances over 2 years seemed to be daring consecutive managers to drop him given the lack of cover available. I don’t know if Coloccini’s injury at the back end of last season was genuine, but if not, it was a dare (and a sale) Benitez didn’t seem to think twice about.
My only doubt is whether Gayle can score as many as we need. While we need someone to score more goals and Mitrovic seems unable to score from open play at any level, or even hit the target consistently, I’m not sure that Gayle is necessarily better than our other options, even though he’s got years on them.
The players who have left?
Coloccini will not be missed any more than he was at the back end of last season. Like Tiote if he goes, his best form at the club was fleeting and long forgotten. There were few husbands left in Newcastle that would be open to being cuckolded for his pleasure given that Mbemba and Lascelles have consistently looked more assured and more inspirational recently.
I think Cisse won a competition to be a footballer and grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Chasing everything, usually into an offside position (he will never grasp that rule), kicking every ball that came towards him as hard as he could towards the goal, no matter where from. For a while his enthusiasm and the incredible success rate of his speculative efforts paid dividends, but he long ago regressed to the mean. He’s best off earning whatever he can in China because he wasn’t fooling anyone in England any more.
Wijnaldum robbed a living and I can’t see that Klopp will get much more out of him at Liverpool given the system he plays and the effort it demands of his players. I almost feel like I should buy any scouser I meet a pint after taking £60m for Carroll and Wijnaldum. He’s got the talent to prove me completely wrong, I just don’t know that he’ll have the endeavour.
This first team compared to Championship one of 2009/10?
It’s difficult to know what the first team is going to be, but looking at the 11 players with most appearances in 09/10, I think my only concern is over attitude rather than ability. Simpson, Taylor (both), Guthrie, Nolan, Smith and co were never the best players in the world, but Simpson has shown at Leicester what attitude can accomplish. We all remember how many clearances he made off the line while he was at Newcastle. He may not have had the elegance of Janmaat and was never as highly rated, but he was never as likely to go missing over-reaching up the other end either. Nor as likely to go radge out of frustration. I called him the cone as he never seemed to be anything more than a moving obstacle. I think I undervalued that kind of contribution though.
We clearly don’t have a Carroll or Nolan in our midst right now either. 34 goals from that pair is something we need to replicate this season, whether they emerge from the players we have or get bought in.
Current squad v 2009/10 one?
The squad is very young. 15 of the 22 in the squad against Arnhem were 25 or under, so bringing in the likes of Gamez is important. Outside of the first 11 in 09/10 we had massive contributions from ageing pros. 13 goals from Lovenkrands. 10 from Shola. On top of those from Carroll and Nolan. I don’t think it’s a squad built to win the league as convincingly as Hughton’s, but Beni’s Bairns should win it and become a far stronger unit for having worked under him over a year.
Mike Ashley turns over new leaf or simply desperately realising he had to agree to Rafa’s demands to prevent total disaster?
The latter, but I don’t mind why Ashley makes good decisions, as long as he makes good decisions. The big question isn’t why he appointed Benitez, but whether he will keep delivering on promises to him if and when the club return to the Premier League.
I believe he will. Not because I have any faith in the man, but because he is reacting to evident failure. When Ashley got a handle on the finances at the club after buying us, he perceived that the major failing was the amounts handed to successive managers to build a team in their own mould. Robson, Souness, Roeder and Allardyce had all had this opportunity in a matter of 3 years and now Keegan wanted to be afforded the same opportunity while the club was posting losses of £20m to £30m a season. Ashley would not have it.
He saw the organisation as the problem, rather than the individuals.
The optics have changed now though. The failure of the last 7 years is clearly not of managers spending the club’s money unwisely, as they’ve not held the purse strings. The failure has been of the organisation Ashley put in place. The non-football people at the club spending the club’s money unwisely, not answering the needs of the manager (whatever his standard), requiring more money to be spent to dig them out of a hole.
My hope and my belief, is that Ashley is now committed to a third way. Find a man that fits that the fans like, that has proven ability, both tactically and in terms of scouting. Put this proven football man in charge of spending the money. Give him a budget and trust his judgement to spend it. Don’t hand him any more than the club can afford but let him get on with it.
Benitez has never walked away from any club demanding that more money be spent. He has only walked away because the money available was spent without his input. I’m confident that Ashley and Benitez can keep working together on the basis that Rafa spends what Newcastle can afford… or what he can generate from sales.
Six key players this coming season?
I’m struggling to come up with six…
Lascelles – An incredible ascent up the pecking order to club captain, but he personifies that attitude over ability ethos mentioned earlier. That’s not to say he’s a bad player, but he showed more in less than a dozen starts and TV interviews than we saw from a dozen multi-million pound flops both in 08/09 and 15/16. A captain that stands up to be counted when things are looking bad as well as good will be a novel thing for Newcastle.
Mitrovic – This season will make or break him. He’s not looked like he could hit a barn door from open play, but he’s scored massive penalties under huge pressure. He shows no fear at moments like that, and I think he was the top scoring U21 in the Premier League for 15/16. Unfortunately, if he can’t double his Premier League goal tally this season and start converting crosses & through balls while being challenged then he’ll have to be shipped out to some other country where the pace is more sedate.
Ritchie/Perez/Aarons – Assuming Sissoko is added to the list of departees, then we’ve lost the players that contributed 44% of our assists and 47% of our goals last season. With little creativity remaining in the centre of the park we’ll need the replacements for Sissoko and Townsend on the wings to fill the void left by their sale.
Other players you’d still like to see leave?
Gouffran, Riviere, Saivet and De Jong can do one. I fear no one would be daft enough to match what we’re paying them unfortunately.
How would you rate your enthusiasm as a Newcastle fan at this moment (compared to recent seasons) and are you planning on going to matches?
I’m more enthusiastic than at any point since 23 August 2008. Under Keegan we had played Man U and Bolton and sat in 4th place. We’ve been in 4th place with 4 games to go since then of course, but under Pardew I never thought we had anything being built, other than the reputation of individuals to sell at profit.
I believe Benitez is someone who can build something. I am planning on going to games. But the season ticket I cancelled last year will not get renewed. The Carver shambles and the flirt with relegation that resulted was the end of my tether. These people just don’t have any care for this club or ability to run it. McClaren’s appointment only confirmed that. Another manager proven to be a failure even in lower leagues and they handed him £80m of “talent” to drain the enthusiasm from. I still went to games, but there was no incentive to buy a season ticket as singles worked out cheaper and there was always seats available.
There remains no benefit to be had from a season ticket. And should there return a call for boycotting games for any reason, I know I will be able to join in effectively and withhold money that props up the regime, rather than only partaking symbolically.
Any positions that Newcastle still definitely need to strengthen in transfer market?
Dummett and Haidara aren’t good enough at LB and the centre of midfield has little to get us excited, but I think we can do a job with what we have. It’s pleasing that we don’t seem to be making do though and continue to look for more bodies to increase competition.
Survive in Premier League with McClaren or Championship with Rafa?
Rafa, no question.
Percentage chance of finishing as Champions this season and percentage chance of just getting promotion?
80% and 19%.
The statistics show that in a short number of games and without any new signings he took us from winning just 0.9 points per game to 1.3 points per game. From scoring just 1 goal per game to 1.6. From conceding 1.9 goals per game to 1.2. We took more shots, got more on target, conceded fewer shots and less of those were on target. We put in more tackles, had more possession and our keeper was called into action less. He’s tactically light years ahead of anyone we’ve had in 10 years and his record in the game outstrips ANY manager we’ve ever had. I couldn’t be more delighted to have him.