With a lot of uncertainty around Mike Ashley and Newcastle United, it could be a season of make or break at St James’ Park and a campaign which could define their future.
Last season: At the halfway stage of the 2017/18 Premier League season, things were looking bleak for Newcastle United. Languishing in the relegation zone with just one point from their previous nine games, the Magpies look destined for the drop. However, after a couple of clever loan signings in goalkeeper Martin Dubravka and Brazilian winger Kenedy revitalised the club, results and fortune turned in their favour.
Thanks to the exceptional managerial expertise of Rafa Benitez, he got the best out of, lets face it, a Championship standard squad. Big wins in the second half of the season against the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea helped propel the Toon to a tenth placed finish – a highly commendable accomplishment for a team with such little investment behind it.
Manager and tactics: Rafa Benitez has already achieved cult hero status in Newcastle because of the wonders he has managed to work with a very limited squad. After failing to avoid the drop with only a few games at the helm in 2015/16, he stayed at the club when more attractive offers were on the table to lead them back to where they belong, finishing the following season in style by winning the Championship.
His style of play has always been built on defensive stability. To quote Chris Kamara, Benitez gets this Newcastle side to “defend like beavers”. It is a body-on-the-line, high intensity, in-your-face style of defending that the Spaniard has drilled into his players. The two wingers, Matt Ritchie and one of Jacob Murphy or Christian Atsu, tend to stay wide, hoping to feed off the two ball-winning central midfielders, Jonjo Shelvey and Mo Diame.
Ayoze Perez floats around in the number ten role, with Dwight Gayle leading the line, using his pace to trouble defenders and get on the end of Jonjo Shelvey’s long balls. It might not be the prettiest football ever produced, but its effective and is down to the fact that Benitez gets the very best out of his players.
Lascelles is the leader and arguably the star of the team, but this Newcastle is a side built on everybody doing their job. Each player is a vital cog in the machine. Although there are no superstars in this squad, it is hard to look past Jonjo Shelvey as one of the most influential players. He has earned a reputation of being a dirty and aggressive midfielder, but his recent performances for the club are evidence of the progress he has made under Benitez.
His range of passing speaks for itself, yet it is a very important aspect of his game, given the style of play that Newcastle adopt. His long balls over the top for Gayle to latch onto, or his cross-field passes to players out wide help the Magpies shift the ball quickly and tidily. He has a very decent long-range shot on him too, and has not lost that aggression he has always possessed. Although that can sometimes be to his detriment, it makes him the player that he is today.
Jamaal Lascelles is not only the club captain, but also embodies everything that is good about this Newcastle side. His combative style of defending, his knack of scoring from set-pieces and commanding leadership has made him a firm favourite amongst Geordies. Constantly linked with a move away from the club this summer, it looks like he will be staying on Tyneside for another season at least – news that will delight everyone associated with Newcastle United Football Club.
Everybody knows about the Newcastle owner, Mike Ashley. There is genuine contempt towards him because of the lack of care he provides to the club. Little to no funding is offered. At a time when clubs of a similar size to the Newcastle, such as West Ham, are spending almost £100 million on new players – and still actively seeking new players – Newcastle’s summer investment does not even reach £10 million.
Martin Dubravka, who enjoyed an excellent six months at the club on loan last season, completed his permanent move to the club, as did Ki Sung-Yong from Swansea and Fabian Schar from Deportivo La Coruña. In the meantime, Mikel Merino, Chancel Mbemba, Mats Selz and Aleksandar Mitrovic have all left for fees totalling £40 million. Newcastle United is a Premier League club that constantly sells out their 52,000 capacity stadium, at a time when it has never been so profitable being in England’s top flight.
The fans are crying out for more investment so that they can at least establish themselves as a constant fixture in the Premier League, and so that Rafa Benitez can be persuaded to continue weaving his magic at the club.
Speaking exclusively to 90MAAT, Newcastle season ticket holder Dan highlights the lack of investment as his main worry, pointing out the fact that Wolves and Huddersfield are outspending the Toon significantly. Staying up is the only realistic target he has, given the absence of expenditure by the club. If Benitez is not backed by the board, it would be no major surprise if he walked away, something that would likely resign the club to a very troubling season.