By John-Paul – @AttackingCB
After relegation in 15/16, Newcastle bounced straight back to the Premier League by winning the Championship in dramatic fashion last season. With Rafa Benitez opting to continue as manager and strong investment in the squad, many expected Newcastle to stroll through the Championship but in reality, it is simply not as easy as that – Newcastle are only the second team to go straight back up automatically in the last 7 seasons. You only need to look to Aston Villa and Norwich to see how difficult it can be to rebuild so they should be given credit for getting it right.
Despite being top for most of the season, things didn’t go completely smoothly for Newcastle and it took a late equaliser from Villa against Brighton to hand them the title on the final day. However, they lead the way in every respect – their xGD (Mark Taylor’s/Infogol model) (and actual GD) were the best in the league, they took the most shots on target per game (5.46) and conceded the least (3.04). The numbers would suggest that Newcastle (along with Brighton) were more than worthy of automatic promotion.
Last season, Benitez almost exclusively deployed a 4-2-3-1/4-4-1-1 and rotated certain players depending on the opposition. Away from home, Diamé’s physical presence was usually preferred over Perez’s dynamism in the number 10 role and against tougher opposition, the likes of Gouffran and Anita were seen as more reliable options than Atsu and Yedlin.
Benitez is a generally cautious, reactive manager – he likes to stop the opposition first and try to control the game. If Newcastle took the lead they were generally happy to soak up pressure, often giving up possession (sometimes too much perhaps), and play on the counter. If they went behind, they would become more proactive and Murphy or Mitrovic could provide an aerial target so they could go more direct. They had an excellent away record last season and are probably more comfortable when the opposition come onto them, rather than having to break down a deep defence.
The 2 in midfield tend to take it in turns to venture forward. Jonjo Shelvey provides creativity, often from deep, spreading the play and hitting the occasional direct pass over the top of the defence. He can be petulant at times though and was banned for making racist remarks – he needs to learn from his mistakes. Isaac Hayden provides great athleticism and is a tidy player – an all-round midfielder and arguably just as key as Shelvey, if less glamorous.
Dwight Gayle was their top scorer last season with 23 goals, proving to be prolific in the Championship, with WAY more shots on target and goals per 90 minutes than anyone else in the division. However, he missed quite a few games through injury and appears to have picked up another last week (although Rafa says he will be fine for the start of the season). Matt Ritchie contributed 12 goals, 3 of which were penalties but he is good on set-pieces and will likely chip in with a few free-kicks and long range strikes.
Gayle is something of an old-fashioned poacher. If Newcastle create chances, he will score goals in the Premier League, even if he doesn’t contribute much else. The worry is whether he can stay fit and if not, can Newcastle rely on others for goals? Daryl Murphy has joined Nottingham Forest for £2m and Newcastle have been linked with several strikers – they do need another forward option.
Yoan Gouffran and Vurnon Anita were released despite playing important roles last year, as was Sammy Ameobi, while a few others have been told that they are surplus to requirements, such as Emmanuel Rivière and Henri Saivet. Benitez has expressed his frustration that he hasn’t been able to get all of the players that he wants (and that he needs to get rid of the ones he doesn’t) but Newcastle have done some business.
Christian Atsu was signed from Chelsea after a loan spell last season. Despite not being first-choice for most of the season, he became more important as the season went on. His end product could improve but he provides a pacey, direct option.
Florian Lejeune has been brought in after impressing at Eibar to compete with Jamal Lascelles and Ciaran Clark at centre-back, while Jacob Murphy is young, talented, and will bring more pace to Newcastle’s wide options.
Mikel Merino has joined on loan from Dortmund and looks to be a classy, versatile player who can play in midfield or defence. He will provide necessary competition, since Jack Colback appeared out of his depth last time around.
Javier Manquillo seemed to be a strange signing, after struggling to even get in the team at relegated rivals Sunderland. However, he was previously highly rated at Atlético and is a former Spain U21 international. He clearly has some talent and it may be that he fares better in a more competent defence under guidance from Rafa.
The goalkeeping situation is interesting in that Newcastle have 4 senior ‘keepers and Benitez doesn’t appear to particularly rate any of them. Matz Sels started last season as first choice but has gone to Anderlecht on loan and Tim Krul has been told to find a new club, having returned from loan spells in the Netherlands. Rob Elliot has been deemed ‘a good option’ and Darlow, having been first choice for the majority of last season will likely be allowed to leave if a new ‘keeper arrives. Freddie Woodman, part of the England U20’s World Cup-winning team, is highly rated but will likely be loaned out again.
A real strength of Newcastle’s last season was set-pieces. They were +14 goals (24 scored, 10 conceded), 6 better than anyone else in the division. As we’ve seen with Chelsea last season (and Tony Pulis every season), set-pieces can make a huge difference over the course of a season. They have good delivery from the likes of Ritchie and Shelvey, players who attack the ball in Clark, Lascelles (and now Lejeune) and clearly put some work into it in training.
After Burnley and Hull were relegated last season, 28 of the last 63 promoted teams have gone straight back down to the Championship. So more than half actually survive and Newcastle have to rate themselves above Brighton and Huddersfield, who are working on smaller budgets. Add to that some potential struggles at the likes of Burnley, Swansea and Watford and they should be optimistic.
At a minimum, Newcastle should be organised and tough to beat with Benitez in charge. The priority is to stay in the league and they should have enough to do that but they will be hoping for more if they can add 1 or 2 quality players (in particular, a ‘keeper and a forward).