When Newcastle United, under then-manager Alan Pardew, finished the 2011-12 season in fifth place in the Premier League – beating Chelsea into sixth, although by virtue of winning the competition Chelsea still took England’s final Champions League spot ahead of fourth-placed Tottenham Hotspur – few Newcastle fans thought it would last. The football had been poor for the majority of the season, with results eked out of a compact defense, a hardworking midfield, and – until January – the exceptional goalscoring of Demba Ba, often making the most of scraps. When Papiss Cisse arrived towards the end of January, he took over much of the goalscoring burden. And when Hatem Ben Arfa was finally established in the team over the final third of the campaign, performances markedly improved, Newcastle playing attractively for the only spell of Pardew’s otherwise torturous tenure.
In 2012-13, at the end of a dismal season all round, Newcastle were almost relegated. They finished sixteenth, facing the increasingly real prospect of the drop until the season’s penultimate game. In 2013-14, they fared a little better, ending up firmly in the middle of the Premier League table, in tenth. But most of their points were won across the season’s first eighteen games: in the final twenty, they picked up just five wins and a single draw, suffering a string of hefty and humiliating defeats. Last season proved a similar story, but sharper still: with the imbecilic John Carver left in charge from January, the side managed only three wins and four draws in the second half of the season, again narrowly avoiding relegation.
Hardly surprising then that change, with the introduction of Steve McClaren as manager, has been largely embraced by Newcastle’s supporters. But one characteristic of the summer’s football dealings has been the extent to which mediocrity is now readily rewarded: from Raheem Sterling and Fabian Delph, to Radamel Falcao and Asamoah Gyan. McClaren too is guilty of winning a significant promotion despite faltering last season. Failing to take Derby County into the Championship play-offs – and twice rejecting the approaches of Newcastle along the way – he was ultimately sacked, allowing Newcastle to appoint him free of charge.
At this point McClaren’s reputation hangs thinly on a 2004 League Cup victory with Middlesbrough, and a subsequent run to the final of the UEFA Cup; and on his leading an already-contending FC Twente side to the Eredivisie title in 2010. A failure for England, Wolfsburg, Nottingham Forest, on his return to Twente, and at Derby, McClaren retains a reputation as a competent coach, but this will be his last opportunity to make a successful manager in the top-flight.
McClaren’s tendency towards uninspiring, overly cautious football has been overlooked – but the sense is, at least he’s not Alan Pardew or John Carver. In comparison he appears diligent and dignified. This and the overhaul of the coaching staff provide some grounds for optimism. With Carver, Steve Stone, and belatedly Andy Woodman all departing, Ian Cathro and Paul Simpson have arrived as assistant coaches; Alessandro Schoenmaker comes in as fitness coach; the highly regarded Steve Black returns to the club on a consultancy basis; and just today Simon Smith was announced as Woodman’s replacement as the new goalkeeping coach.
Still, it is easy to feel that some of Newcastle’s fans – used to receiving nothing but contempt – are overly grateful too for the little they have received so far this summer on the transfer front. Giving his first televised interview in eight years as the club’s owner, before Newcastle’s final game of last season against West Ham, Mike Ashley issued a promise:
‘We’ve got the club on a very sound financial footing so we are able to spend, and punch above our weight thanks to the current financial situation the club finds itself in. We may have the cart but we now need to bolt the horse on and we are going to.
Now [my intention] is definitely to win something – and by the way, I won’t be selling it until I do. Not at any price. And by the way, when I say win something, if we ever get in a position of a Champions League place, that counts as winning something. From this day forward we will be making our own luck.’
So not only were Newcastle set to spend seriously for the first time under Ashley’s ownership, but they were going to spend with a lofty goal in mind: a trophy or a top-four finish. Quite a turnaround given the club’s previously stated willingness to exit all cup competitions at the earliest opportunity, in order to focus on nothing more than securing Premier League status.
Newcastle’s pre-season – organised before McClaren took the manager’s job – has been typically shameful. Three matches were played against second-and-third-string opposition in the United States, resulting in two defeats, and one victory thanks only to a remarkable own goal. The final match of the tour was played on an artificial pitch, deemed unsuitable for the legs and backs of all the club’s first-choice defenders. A defeat away to lowly York City followed; and then another in Newcastle’s final friendly, at home to Borussia Mönchengladbach. With McClaren favouring a 4-2-3-1 formation, let’s look at Newcastle’s squad as it stands, heading into Sunday’s opener against Southampton.
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Goalkeepers: Krul, Darlow, Elliot
Centre-backs: Coloccini, Mbemba, S. Taylor, Dummett, Williamson, Lascelles
Central midfielders: Tiote, Colback, Anita, Abeid
Attacking midfielders: De Jong, Sissoko, Wijnaldum, Cabella
Wide midfielders: Aarons, Obertan, Gouffran
Strikers: Cisse, Mitrovic, Perez, Riviere
Incomings: Wijnaldum (PSV, £14.5 million); Mitrovic (Anderlecht, £13 million); Mbemba (Anderlecht, £7 million)
Outgoings: Ameobi (Cardiff, Loan); Armstrong (Coventry, Loan); Gutierrez (End of contract); R. Taylor (End of contract)
Karl Darlow and Jamaal Lascelles were purchased a year ago for a reported £7 million from Nottingham Forest, then loaned back to the club for the duration of the 2014-15 season. They are therefore set to spend their first campaign as part of the Newcastle first-team squad. In a radio interview given earlier today, Steve McClaren expressed his belief that Fabricio Coloccini and Moussa Sissoko will stay beyond the remainder of the transfer window, and continue to play important roles for the club.
Mehdi Abeid is being strongly linked with a transfer to Fortuna Düsseldorf. Meanwhile one of the English summer’s ongoing sagas – regarding the eventual whereabouts of Queens Park Rangers’ Charlie Austin – stands no nearer a conclusion. QPR expect the striker, who scored eighteen goals in the Premier League last term, to stay in the top division following their relegation to the Championship, but his destination divides opinion. Roughly half of their fans and local reporters remain convinced that Newcastle will conclude a deal for Austin, and are simply biding their time in order to haggle over the price. The other half believe if there ever was any interest, it has long since waned. If Austin does arrive at Newcastle, it will surely mean the end of Papiss Cisse’s time at the club.
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Newcastle posted an £18.7 million profit for 2014, and a £9.9 million profit for 2013. Player sales – notably the £18 million sale of Yohan Cabaye to Paris Saint-Germain in January 2014 – contributed to this, as did the club’s refusal to purchase a single first-team player across eighteen barren months. In addition to these figures, without signing anyone in January, Newcastle released Hatem Ben Arfa, and completed the sales of Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa and Davide Santon for £5 million and £2.8 million respectively. Newcastle’s expenditure so far this summer has scarcely exceeded the scope of these profits: not touching any of the £70 million-plus clubs will receive in television money this season, a sum which is set to rise yet again come 2016-17.
Always reluctant to invest where scraping by remains an option, purely looking at the number of players in the current squad, it is possible to see why Newcastle appear unwilling to venture further signings. There are twenty-six players listed above who the Newcastle board and management may conceivably view as realistic first-team squad members.
The truth however is that Newcastle’s squad remains unbalanced, while carrying the burden of players who – whatever their experience or reputation – have no place competing in the Premier League. Mike Williamson is a remorseless liability in the centre of defence: his dearth of pace allows opposition forwards through on goal numerous times each game; he lacks positional awareness; and his distribution spoils any attempt to build play from the back. On the basis of his performances over the last few seasons, it is hard to see him excelling even in the third or fourth tier of English football.
Gabriel Obertan and Yoan Gouffran are devoid of the skills and intellect required to have any meaningful impact in the attack. They have spurned too many chances at Newcastle, and should no longer find themselves in the first-team frame. Elsewhere after a gloomy first season with the club, in which he scored just one Premier League goal, Emmanuel Riviere has been wilfully forgotten – and he is out of action anyway with a knee injury, which may only serve to prevent his immediate sale.
At the back, Steven Taylor’s career has been beset by long-term injury problems, rendering him an unreliable figure even before his reckless on-pitch behaviour is taken into account. While six centre-backs looks more than adequate written down, there are severe question marks over all bar new signing Chancel Mbemba and Paul Dummett. Yet with only two full-backs in the squad, these two are perhaps the most likely to be shunted wide to provide cover. The result is a defence which threatens to leak goals, without some sudden upswing in form and organisation, and Mbemba quickly adapting to his new surrounds.
In the midfield, four dedicated players for the two deeper central roles would be fair. But Cheick Tiote has been absent from the team for a long time now, his commitment uncertain, and his form when he is fit and available liable to fluctuate drastically. Jack Colback has somehow become a linchpin of the side despite offering little more than a laboured if persistent workrate. Vurnon Anita on the other hand is an astute footballer who can pass the ball sharply and effectively, and he shows good positional sense, but he requires a more imposing partner. With Mehdi Abeid’s departure imminent, it is only left to wonder at how Newcastle misuse, abuse and then cast off talented youngsters.
Further up the pitch Newcastle possess an abundance of players who seemingly share a favoured position: the number 10 role, drifting behind a central striker. This is the role which best suits Siem de Jong, Moussa Sissoko, Georginio Wijnaldum, Remy Cabella, and arguably even the more clearly versatile Ayoze Perez. Some of these will have to operate from wider positions, where there is a dearth of talent.
Rolando Aarons, exciting pre-season and the club’s only natural winger, should when fit be a guaranteed starter, on either the left or the right. Given his performances last season and his equally impressive pre-season displays, Ayoze Perez ought to join him somewhere in the starting eleven. This would mean either De Jong or Sissoko missing out, with Wijnaldum potentially moving back into the central midfield two. Whatever, Newcastle are short when it comes to genuine width, and a player who can whip in the sort of cross which might appeal to their new striker. Loaning out Sammy Ameobi was both unwise and unjust: a player who could thrive with a bit of confidence, in an awful setup last term he was one of the side’s better attackers, sometimes one-trick, but capable of beating his man, crossing the ball, and playing a patient through-pass.
Papiss Cisse has looked disgruntled and disinterested for the best part of three seasons now: despite a flurry of goals from the bench early last season, his all-round play tends to feature sloppy touches, lethargic closing down of the opposition defence, and an outstanding lack of awareness which finds him isolated from his teammates and too often offside. Aleksandar Mitrovic must start the season at the head of Newcastle’s attack, with Perez the next best bet. Mitrovic arrives after a superb season for Anderlecht, in which he scored twenty league goals; but given his youth, a more experienced alternative would seem a wise purchase.
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So on the surface all things change at Newcastle – but if the new coaching setup doesn’t reap immediate rewards, it might be surprising how much stays the same. The new manager is conservative yet has everything to prove. With Ben Arfa, Yanga-Mbiwa, Santon, and Gutierrez all gone from this time last season, Wijnaldum, Mitrovic, and Mbemba represent only moderate additions. Two or three more certainly wouldn’t go amiss – even if in the process of balancing the squad, with a convincing striker, a wide attacker, and more cover for the defence, an established name like Sissoko went to make room and help cover some of the cost.
Those players who have shown themselves incapable time after time aren’t only deadwood: in their strange powers of persistence, they threaten to undermine the team and any semblance of a fresh start. Offloading Williamson and Gouffran before the transfer window shuts is just as imperative as making new signings. Another reform which the club must make regards the process of developing youngsters. With Ameobi tossed aside this season, Perez and Aarons must be given the time and space in which to shine.
All in all, some improvement on the disaster of last season is certainly expected, and shouldn’t come too hard to achieve. Steve McClaren will undoubtedly be more palatable to watch and to listen to than his predecessors. There are enough poor teams about to free Newcastle from too many relegation concerns. But lots of work will be needed on and off the pitch if Newcastle are to finish any better than lower mid-table, tenth-to-twelfth.