Newcastle United are moored between optimism and pessimism. On the pitch there’s an OK enough squad, marshalled by an organiser of high repute in Rafael Benítez, a manager who has been embraced by supporters in a way no Newcastle gaffer has been for a long time. A 10th placed finish last season right after achieving promotion? Not too shabby. Off the pitch, though, is the ever-lurking Mike Ashley. An owner who is seen as the impediment to all that brewing positivity. Despite the reasons to be cheerful, there’s always some tension boiling under the surface at St James’ Park.
Last season was a decent old job for a newly promoted side, even if it won’t win any awards for entertainment value. Come against Benítez’ boys and you’ll be faced with a deep/mid, compact 4-4-1-1 / 4-4-2. Other formations are sprinkled in on occasion, yet the principles remain the same. A gigantic wall blocking the way. Only engaging with any real intensity as the ball spreads out wide, edges closer to their goal or enters into a danger area. Sometimes the height of the press adjusts situationally. There’s an almost hypnotic aspect to watching that shape move back and forth, from side to side.
It’s likely that the impression most neutrals have of Newcastle in their mind is of this defensively astute team, with an impotent long ball attack. Yet their numbers don’t reflect this dichotomy. They ranked 11th in overall non-penalty expected goal difference last year, but came out 14th in non-pen xG conceded and 9th in non-pen xG created. If anything they were roughly equal on both sides of the ball in expectation. A dynamic that was obscured in actuality, as they underperformed their xG by about 7 goals – the largest such negative margin in the league – and overpeformed by a similarly large margin in defence.
There was no single obvious stylistic weakness in their defensive game. In most regards – counter attacking shots conceded, in the clear shots conceded, conceding shots after losing the ball in their own half etc etc – they were midtable or around there. The classic recipe of being generally so-so and ending up, well, midtable.
On the other end the surface numbers would suggest an unhealthy attack; their average shot distance is the furthest from goal in the league, and they complete the fourth fewest passes into the opposition box. This was mostly due to the weakness of their possession game. On possessions that featured 10 or more passes, Newcastle again had the poorest shot distance in the Premier League, as well as close to the worst xG created. This is evidently not where they make their money offensively.
Given their defensive plan, you can probably imagine their main mode of attacking play: directness is the name of the game. They’re one of the fastest teams in the league and play amongst the most long balls. This is how they make hay, how they end up grading out as a solid attack. They accumulated the fourth highest xG total from open play possessions that featured 5 or fewer passes.
All of this this worked in the aggregate. But it wasn’t the smoothest ride. They dipped hard for a long period. Looking impotent on the attacking end and increasingly leaky in defence. A relegation-level stretch. For all of Benítez’s coaching chops, it’s still a tad worrying at times, watching them barely even get out of their own half in some matches. Absorbing attack after attack.
10th is no bad place to be of course, especially not for a promoted side. But to stay there you’ve gotta keep up with the Joneses. The talent level of your squad needs to be improving as every other team does the same around you. This summer’s truncated transfer window shuts imminently and Newcastle’s work to accomplish this has been…tumultuous.
The most curious development has been at the striker position. No player broke the 10 goal mark in the league for them last season. Ayoze Perez, despite being functionally an attacking midfielder/striker mix, got the closest with eight goals in 2497 minutes. Dwight Gayle managed six, Joselu just four. That, plus the aforementioned underperformance on xG (whether you consider it a candidate for regression or otherwise), would suggest reinforcements are needed.
Their main response to this thus far is to make a rarely-seen loan swap deal with West Bromwich Albion, bringing in Salomón Rondón and sending Dwight Gayle the other way. The Venezuelan notched an iffy seven goals in just shy of 3000 minutes last season, with some equally ugly underlying production. Theoretically he provides a real threat from set pieces (although Newcastle were already doing quite well in that department by xG) and in the air, taking the 3rd most headed shots in the league. Yet, even if you price in that he will have a few more opportunities in the north east than he did in 17/18 on a now relegated West Brom side, it isn’t exactly lifting their attacking ceiling. Nor is there any upside here with a 28 year old we’re quite familiar with already.
Elsewhere they’ve rescued Ki-Sung-yueng from Swansea on a free, Yoshinori Mutō as further forward depth, Fabian Schär at centre-back, goalkeeper Martin Dúbravka (who they had on loan last season), and Kenedy back in for a second loan season. On the outs, amongst many released players, are midfielder Mikel Merino, Chancel Mbemba and Aleksandar Mitrović. The last of those being particularly odd as the Serb may have been a solution for their goalscoring issues. Now he’s at newly-promoted Fulham and directly competing against them in the league table.
The incomings are all solid enough, but they’re not really moving things forward. Newcastle are essentially replacing outgoing players at their positions – even if it isn’t exactly like-for-like – and re-upping some loans. There’s not much improvement or diversification. The squad is in largely the same place it was previously, right when they need to be stacking more talent on top. Ostensibly this is because Ashley doesn’t want to do much more. Of course this may not even end up as a concern at all. Being roughly the same level as you were previously when you comfortably avoided relegation and broke into the top half isn’t disastrous on its face. Yet when you’re in the mix with those ‘could fall into a relegation battle’ teams (and several of those are stronger this year), that risk is always there.
The more existential fear is how clearly miffed Benítez is about the whole situation. It seems every other day there’s a new headline about how he and Ashley are clashing over buying players. This story from the Guardian features these almost parodically portentous quotes:
Rafael Benítez’s tenure as Newcastle’s manager looks to be reaching a pivotal moment after he claimed “everything” is wrong behind the scenes at St James’ Park.
“When things are not going well off the pitch you can see a reflection on the pitch,” Benítez said after Wednesday’s 4-0 friendly defeat at Braga in northern Portugal. Pressed as to whether he was referring to recruitment at a club showing a profit on summer dealing, he replied: “Everything – I’m really worried.”
asked if there was money to spend or any deals were close he said: “I have no idea. The fans have to be concerned, we are concerned. I’m really worried.”
Evidently he is worried.
This is the running fear if you’re a Newcastle supporter. At best this is Benítez – potentially harmfully – pulling some public power plays on transfers. At worst it’s actively driving out the manager and arguably the most positive aspect the club has had in yonks. In any reasonable scenario, the club will likely be fine next season. Avoiding relegation and finishing somewhere around 10th again is well within grasp. Beyond that though lies a minefield of possibilities that we can’t anticipate.
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