Rafa Benitez can’t keep performing miracles.
Following a last-day title triumph in the Championship, the Spaniard was ‘backed’ by Mike Ashley in his first Premier League transfer window with about £25 million (enough to buy half of Watford’s Richarlison if you believe recent reports). This restricted budget led to just one starting line-up player being signed – centre-back Florian Lejeune from Eibar. He was subsequently hacked down on the opening day and out for ten weeks with damaged ankle ligaments. Thanks, Harry Kane.
Newcastle United Season Preview
With the same starting 11 that won the Championship and a squad barely helped by low-key, anyone-will-do arrivals, Newcastle climbed to fifth, then lost seven in a row and found themselves right in the relegation mire.
A key win over Manchester United helped alleviate those fears, as did the incredibly shrewd January loan arrivals of goalkeeper Martin Dubravka from Sparta Prague and winger Kenedy from Chelsea. The Magpies ended up in tenth place following a strong end to the season – a barely believable feat considering the lack of depth in the Newcastle squad and an achievement that is owed solely by Benitez’s ability to eek every last drop of quality from his players, organise them efficiently and improve them both structurally and individually.
Naturally, the man is revered on Tyneside. He can do no wrong. But Mike Ashley doesn’t seem to hold the same sort of affection for him as the fans. Another transfer window is drawing to a close – another window of the words ‘sell to buy’, ‘limited funds’ and ‘wheel and deal’ being uttered around St James’ Park far too frequently. The ‘every penny available’ cut-and-paste statements have worn thin. Benitez is in the last year of his three-year contract and is refusing to sign a new one until he’s given the promised investment. The fans back him. Ashley is refusing to back his manager with cash unless he commits to the club and signs a new contract.
A classic stalemate. The team is no stronger, the training ground is still out of date and the squad is still thin. Dubravka has been signed permanently (£5 million), Ki has arrived on a free from Swansea and Kenedy’s loan has been refreshed, but these incomings don’t even paper over the cracks – Newcastle haven’t broken their transfer record since the 2005, £17 million signing of Michael Owen, in an era where an average Premier League player will cost £20 million.
A season of discontent is on the cards unless one party relents. Benitez will need his squad to over-perform again to stay clear of the relegation scrap. It’s going to be difficult to motivate a squad if the players can see the manager running down his contract. So as usual, the most interesting action in Newcastle will be off the pitch.
On it, all hopes will lie with a key trio. Jamaal Lascelles is United’s captain and leader, and Benitez has moulded him into one of the best young centre halves in the Premier League. Dominant in the air and comfortable on the ball, there were England call-up whispers last season. With Gary Cahill unlikely to pull on the Three Lions shirt again, a similar showing this season could propel him into the fold.
Jonjo Shelvey will be given the freedom to drop deep, push on, and generally roam anywhere he sees fit. This is a Newcastle team based on pragmatism and resilience, and the improvement in his defensive responsibilities is noticeable, but Shelvey is the key to so many doors for this team. He’s worth his weight in gold to a side lacking Premier League class in a lot of forward areas.
The final member of the trio is Kenedy. To say he set the place alight last season would be pushing it, but he is clearly a class act. Securing him for another year could turn out to be Benitez’s best act of a meagre transfer window. He can create, score, works hard and has that touch of flair that gets people on their feet. With the continued absence of a proven Premier League goalscorer (at the time of writing, with everything crossed for an out-of-the-blue signing) he will shoulder a significant portion of the goalscoring burden.
What Is Success?
What can this mismatch of parts achieve? How can success be measured this season? Benitez has already said that he will target 40 points and survival, and that will be on the only on-the-pitch focus. Most Newcastle fans would take 17th or above right now, providing the team tick over in mid-table on the pitch. All of the really important questions are off it.
Unfortunately, one thing seems pretty certain – this time next year, it’s highly likely that one of Benitez or Ashley will no longer be at Newcastle United. If it’s the former, it might just be the final straw for a simmering fanbase. The consequences aren’t worth thinking about.