You know that your club’s situation is bad when fans of other teams feel so bad making taunts that they actively hope things get better for you. Newcastle fans, like those of Leeds, are probably sick of hearing “y’know, it’d be nice if you guys were good again.”
As the summer stretched slowly towards its unexpected scorching peak, it looked like Newcastle’s attacking stock would be running dry come 2019/20. Almost all of their forwards seemed to leave. Gone were the top three expected goals contributors, and two of the top four expected goals assisters left too (out of players who played more than 600 minutes).
They do still have Miguel Almiron of course, and Yoshinori Muto (um… who, in limited minutes, averaged just 0.75 shots per 90 last season). And Matt Ritchie and Jonjo Shelvey.
It’s a good thing, then, that Newcastle spent around £35m on 22-year-old Joelinton. The Brazilian forward arrives from Hoffenheim with some slightly-better-than-league-average radars and a 0.51 goal contribution per 90 minutes rate in tow.
He moved around the Hoffenheim attack a little bit last season, spending a little time as a right-sided forward here and a little as an attacking midfielder there. There’s reason enough to be happy about this transfer, and he appears to have performed well in pre-season, although it’s a shame that it came after the rest of the attack was gutted.
You could flip that thought, though. Joselu is 29, Rondon soon turns 30. Granted, Perez has only just turned 26, but a 25-year-old Almiron and 22-year-old Joelinton as the centre of the attack looks a lot more like squad-building than loaning in Salomon Rondon (as undeniably good as he was when he got going in 2018/19).
That last paragraph perhaps gives Mike Ashley and co too much credit, especially given that mere survival in the Premier League this season won’t be an easy task. Joelinton is still, at time of writing, the only player that Newcastle have actually signed this summer, despite all their outgoings.
However, there’s hope, and the prospect of Mike Ashley releasing some club funds again, on the horizon. Newcastle have been linked with 22-year-old Nice forward Allan Saint-Maximin, a young, nippy speedster who’s attracted a lot of attention. You can see why – he breaks the dribble scale, winging his way round wayward defenders 4.88 times per 90 minutes. StatsBomb’s template stops at 3.7 (the 95th percentile).
However, speed seems to be something of a crutch, and he doesn’t yet seem to have developed a reliable way of turning his dribbling ability into something more.
He was somewhat less adept at passing the ball into the penalty area (yellow is incomplete). pic.twitter.com/MXx5grSZhS
— StatsBomb (@StatsBomb) August 1, 2019
That doesn’t mean that he’ll be bad, by any stretch of the imagination, but one wouldn’t be surprised if Newcastle fans went through a stretches of being enamoured, and then annoyed, by their new signing.
The only other confirmed incoming name is Steve Bruce into the dug-out. This feels far more in line with what we’ve come to expect from Ashley, and Bruce’s time at Sheffield Wednesday last season probably won’t inspire anyone on Tyneside all that much.
Wednesday finished 12th last season, with Bruce arriving in February, a league average position for a generally league average-looking team. The Owls’ poor defence improved as the season went on, but the work was already done by the time that Bruce got there in February. He mostly seemed to have kept them on the same course that they were already on.
Bruce’s Premier League win rate has been highlighted before by those seeking to criticise the decision to appoint him, but it’s worth pointing out that he’s a particularly odd case. He’s in that class of managers who are native to the country and have been around a while. Because of that, he’s been in charge of a lot of teams near the plughole of the Premier League, far more than any other manager in the league. That’s not to say it’s a good appointment, but it feels unfair to judge him by that measure.
His history, beyond just his Championship league-average spell at Sheffield Wednesday, doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence. When you think about the startlingly high bar of managerial talent in the league at the moment – Ralph Hasenhuttl, Graham Potter, Chris Wilder, Dean Smith all look good coaches, and that’s just the bottom of the league – things get even more tense.
With an uninspiring choice of manager, and so few new signings, Newcastle fans will have to content themselves with looking forward to Miguel Almiron’s first full season in the Premier League. On the face of it, his output during the back end of 2018/19 didn’t look that great.
However, Almiron was a weird cog in the Newcastle machine. His pace, his excitement, and presumably what it allowed Benitez to do tactically with the team, seemed to revitalise the Magpies, even if the Paraguayan didn’t directly score or set up a goal.
This gets captured when you take a step back and look at the possession sequences before the shots and key passes. Almiron was the most important part of the team for building up chances (that he didn’t then provide the shot or final pass for).
There’s also – and I’m aware this approaches blasphemy – a chance that the departure of Benitez won’t wholly be a bad thing.
Newcastle’s performances under their former manager had a bizarre quirk when looking at their expected goals trendline. Things were moderately ok at the start of the season, got pretty bad, and then the attack would find their feet a bit and the defence would tighten up a bit enough to become a league average side and avoid relegation.
It’s a really strange trend, and makes you wonder about how Benitez’s reign would be thought of if he either hadn’t recovered things by the end of the season, or hadn’t let the team fall back in the first place. The pattern was less pronounced in the second season than the first, so maybe it was something that he was addressing.
On the other hand, it’s interesting to look back on the jokes (jokes?) that were made about poor winter performances being a message to Mike Ashley to invest. Sure enough, Ashley bought Almiron in January. Either Benitez was only getting good performances out of his team when it counted, or he was orchestrating an incredibly complex game with the club’s owner. It seems a hell of a lot more likely that it was the former.
Newcastle’s talent, in attack, is all still a little unproven in the league too. Muto, one match against Manchester United aside, never hit his stride; Almiron looked promising, but is yet to score or assist; Joelinton is a new signing, with all the uncertainty that brings, and the same would be the case for Saint-Maximin.
Their good centre-backs and good goalkeeper should get them a certain amount of the way towards a competent defensive system, and Bruce, being an old-school man, will probably have them sit back and soak pressure.
It’s interesting, and worrying, times. You could point to several teams in the league with a lower quality of squad. But the course of relegation never does run smooth, and it only takes a particularly poor run of form or cold streak in front of goal to put a big pothole in the road to safety.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association