Last season Newcastle suffered the embarrassment of being beaten to survival by their rivals Sunderland. They managed just nine wins and scored only 44 goals, as fans saw them fall into the Championship for the second time since the Premier League was founded. Fortunes at St James Park, however, have taken a turn for the better under the managerial prowess of Rafa Benitez. Despite splashing the cash on some great investments, Newcastle will need more than their current assets to ensure they are a mainstay in the Premier League.
This was Newcastle’s line up for the last game of the season, a game in which they clinched the Championship Title: GK Rob Elliot LB Paul Dummett CB Chancel Mbemba CB Issac Hayden RB DeAndre Yedlin LM Yoann Gouffran CM Jack Colback CM Jonjo Shelvey RM Christian Atsu CAM Ayoze Perez CF Aleksandar Mitrovic. The subsitutes used were: Massadio Haïdara, Mohamed Diame and Dwight Gayle.
Newcastle have been scoring freely, converting 85 of their chances, but it is important to note that this was also achieved by Norwich and Fulham. The real strength that shows is their defence was solid, only conceding 40, only matched by second placed Brighton. In the Premier League only Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United and Tottenham have conceded less with games still to play. Karl Darlow has proved to be a stone wall in between the posts, keeping 13 clean sheets in 34 matches. He only conceded a goal every 96 minutes on average, only topped by Brighton’s David Stockdale. At the young age of 26, he still has plenty of time to progress further and keeping him will be vital to Newcastle’s Premier League Campaign.
Jamal Lascelles has played a large part in The Magpie’s tight defensive line this season. Both Darlow and Jamal were bought from Nottingham Forest and have proved to be inspired purchases, much too The Red’s detriment. The Forest defence since the pair left has lacked quality and leadership in my opinion. In Contrast the leadership of Lascelles is really what stands out to me. He spoke out after Newcastle’s 3-1 loss to Southampton, “We need bigger characters on the pitch, players who care and who are going to get after each other. We have lacked it this season and no matter how good you are, if you don’t have that fight and hunger and desire, it doesn’t matter. We had Steve McClaren who is a great manager and now we’ve got Rafa Benitez, who is a great manager, so it’s clearly not that. It’s the players and we have to take full responsibility. It’s ourselves who need to change it and not the manager.”
For a 23 year old to speak out against his own team mates with such brutal honesty shows bravery and earned the respect of many fans. He made this seasons PFA Championship Team of the Year, a great achievement for a man his age, yet he shows maturity and discipline on the pitch well beyond his years. Did I mention he can score as well? He scored three this season, just one less than Mitrovic. Defensively, Newcastle are ready for the step back up into England’s top division.
Jonjo Shelvey has proven himself in the Premier League already, first with Liverpool, then Swansea and finally Newcastle. He also has three caps for England, and at the age of 25, probably could still force his way back into the side. His distribution is second to none in the Newcastle side. Although his temper sometimes gets the best of him, he also provides the much needed muscle required to boss the midfield. He is also the highest valued player in the Championship according to Tranfermarkt.com. Only three players have played more minutes than Shelvey this season and that includes another key midfielder, Matt Ritchie.
Matt Ritchie, has scored 84 goals in 346 league appearances, a statistic that probably had a large part in Bournemouth’s estimated £12 million valuation of him. He has scored 12 goals for Benitez’s side as well as laying on another eight for them. His efforts have caught the eye of Scotland manager, Gordon Strachan, resulting in 14 appearances for his national team. He also has Premier League experience with Bournemouth and won their goal of the season. He will be key to their Premier League campaign and could be the difference between an average or excellent year.
The midfield does need reinforcements however. Some of the players proved ineffective during the season the side were relegated. Cheick Tiote, Jack Colback and Vernon Anita, to name just three, all did not step up when points were needed from big games, and I don’t see the point in taking the risk when Mike Ashley has promised them a transfer war chest to bring in new talent. So who do they target?
Gylfi Sigurdsson could be available if Swansea get relegated, and with Benitez at the helm, he could be persuaded to join the former Premier League Champions. He made opposition keepers quake in their boots, not only laying on 12 goals for his team, the second highest in the league, but has also found the net nine times himself. He would make a great attacking midfielder, playing just above Shelvey, allowing him the freedom to run at the opposition and create chances.
Another option could be Morgan Sanson from Marseille, if we are to assume Newcastle will continue their affiliation with the French League. The midfielder tops the assist chart with 12 goals created and has put away four of his own. Tranfermarkt.com estimate his cost to be £8.5 million but I would estimate it to be nearer £20 million, but at the age of 22 he could be a great long term investment.
The final option I would suggest would be Youri Tielemans. The Anderlecht midfielder tops the assist charts and created most of the chances that troubled Manchester United in their Europa League clash. He also knows how to put them in himself, having scored no less than 17 in domestic competitions this season. Transfermarkt.com rates him at £17 million but that will only increase and at the age of 20 is an even greater buy, with his sell on value likely to be much higher in the future. He would probably require the biggest effort in persuasion but there aren’t many players who would say no to ‘Rafa’ and with more money spent, they can portray themselves as something far more than just the Championship Titleholders.
Upfront, I do think it is worth holding on to Dwight Gayle. His 23 goals in the league made up 27% of The Magpie’s goals, undoubtably playing a huge part in their promotion this season. My concern is his Premier League pedigree. In three seasons in the top flight he managed just 15 goals in 64 appearances, a 23% conversion rate opposed to his 72% rate for Newcastle this season. It makes me think maybe the Championship is his level and I view it the same way as Jordan Rhodes, a player I very much admire. He was prolific in the Championship but this season with Middlesborough, he could not produce the goods in the Premier League.
For me, Newcastle must sign a striker to compete with the powerhouses of the Premier League. Newcastle could try and lure Gomis back to England from France but after his time at Swansea, I am unsure if he would be willing. Andrea Belotti from Torino could be the solution. With Torino in ninth position in Serie A, they will not have the luxury of European Football and could be tempted by the lure of English football and a world class manager. He scored 25 goals in 32 appearances this season, a 78% conversion rate in a top league, and also a league known for its impeccable defences. Most likely they would have to fight off other suitors, but if their heads are turned elsewhere, they may be able to snatch him early on in the window. They would have to make a statement signing him as he is valued on Transfermarkt at £25 million, but that message may help draw other big players back to the club who previously broke the club transfer record signing Micheal Owen.
I am almost sure it won’t play out this way, but if Newcastle want to return to the days of old, or replicate Birmingham’s achievements after promotion, strolling into the Europa League, then this is what is required of them. What happens next, we shall see.