2019 has been yet another year of unfulfilled promise for Newcastle United. The last 12 months has seen a managerial change, the transfer record broken on two separate occasions and a respectable mid-table finish. On the face of it, things look reasonably positive. Dave Black explains why that is not the case heading into 2020.
With Rafa Benitez at the helm, there always seemed to be a plan. Not just in terms of how the team was set up but long term. He had a vision for the club and the city but only one thing stood in his way. Mike Ashley only has visions for staying in the Premier League, everything else is a nuisance. The Spaniard started 2019 with just six months left on his contract but the former Liverpool manager spoke of being keen to stay if the ambition was right. Many guessed how that would turn out…
Defeats to Manchester United and Chelsea plunged the Mapgies into the bottom three in January but a win over Cardiff soon rectified that. With a shadow side comfortably knocked out of the FA Cup by Watford, Manchester City arrived on Tyneside for a night that would change the complexion of both teams’ seasons.
Before kick-off, rumours began to claim credibility that Miguel Almiron would be signing before the window closed. At £20m, this was the first time Newcastle had broken their transfer record since the signing of Michael Owen in 2005. Considering the struggle Benitez has had the previous summer to get deals done due to the lack of funds, this felt like an important milestone. Was Ashley warming to the Benitez way? Was this a sign that the two had found a way to work together?Embed from Getty Images
Even though Newcastle trailed after barely a minute, a second-half comeback saw Salomon Rondon equalise before academy graduate Sean Longstaff won a penalty that Matt Ritchie converted. This was a famous win that Newcastle barely looked back from. Manchester City would drop no further points as they went on to lift the Premier League trophy.
With Almiron’s pace and directness added to the team, Benitez’s 5-2-3 system now had a greater threat. Back-to-back home wins against Huddersfield and Burnley lifted Newcastle as high as 13th as any serious threat of relegation was thwarted with months to spare. Some highlights of the remainder of the season included a home win against Everton from 2-0 down, a super-disciplined 1-0 away win at Leicester and a Perez hat-trick seeing off Southampton. Finishing 13th should have been a good platform to move forward – after all, top scorers Ayoze Perez (13) and Rondon (12) had looked much more threatening with Almiron added to the mix. Surely a new contract for the manager would be forthcoming?
It looked like Christmas had come early. Just hours after Sunderland’s loss in the League One play-off final, a national newspaper ran a story that the BZG group had agreed a deal to buy Newcastle United. This was the day fans has been waiting for. This situation had arisen a few times though and never amounted to anything. Confirmation came from BZG that a deal was in the works. This was new. The Ashley era looked to have finally come to a close.
Weeks went by with claim and counter claim about the validity of the deal. BZG seemed adamant a deal was done, nobody else seemed quite as convinced. Benitez’s contract expired and he departed for China, a bitter pill for fans to swallow that would be sweetened if a takeover was announced.
As pre-season approached, Steve Bruce was unveiled as the new manager. The appointment hardly set pulses racing but it was further tainted by reports of an illegal approach as Bruce was under contract with Sheffield Wednesday. This was Bruce’s dream job having been born a Geordie but many felt his time at the top level of management had been and gone. It was a world away from Benitez and his coaching team but Ashley afforded Bruce the type of transfer kitty the Spaniard could only dream of. The transfer record was smashed again, this time for Joelinton at £35m. This was more than double the price Rondon was available for, who despite being seven years older had really impressed during his loan spell and knew the Premier League. Perez was also sold for £30m, undoubtedly a good business deal for Ashley having signed Perez for £1.5m some six years earlier but a disaster for a team now missing its top two goal scorers.Embed from Getty Images
Allan Saint-Maximin and Jetro Willems have been two more successful signings while Ashley plunged into his marketing handbook one more time on deadline day to bring back Andy Carroll on a free transfer. Another Geordie lad and academy graduate, the striker’s career has been beset by injury since leaving Newcastle in 2011 and signing him on a pay as you play deal seemed a desperate gamble.
Bruce spoke of wanting to change the style of the team and give players more freedom. Benitez had the squad drilled into a shape that was hard to break down but wasn’t overly expansive. The system had proven more than functional in the latter half of the season but it was only natural for a new manager to try and put his own stamp on the team.
Unfortunately, it backfired almost immediately. A 3-1 defeat at Norwich was pathetic from the first whistle and Benitez’s system was reintroduced just in time for a backs to the wall 1-0 win at Tottenham. Joelinton opened his account that day but it proved to be a false dawn – as of this writing it is his only goal for the club.Embed from Getty Images
Although a Carabao Cup exit on penalties to Leicester could be considered unlucky, a four-match winless streak culminated with a 5-0 defeat to the same opposition as Bruce switched to a back four. In a strange way this proved to be a watershed moment in the season albeit in very different circumstances to the Manchester City game in January.
Back to basics
Since October, Bruce has stuck with the “Benitez” system and results have improved. The team have climbed from 19th to 11th in that time, beating Manchester United, West Ham, Bournemouth, Sheffield United and Southampton, whilst also drawing with the champions Manchester City. It hasn’t always been pretty but results have been ground out, with defenders chipping in with the majority of the goals and Jonjo Shelvey leading the scorers chart with five. There are no extra points awarded for style and fans will always value points above anything else but there are doubts remaining about the long-term stability of the club.
Will Bruce be capable of devising a tactical plan when he inevitably moves the team to a style he prefers? Can the team keep relying on defenders scoring? At what point will Joelinton be taken out the limelight after such a poor goal return for his price tag? There is an ongoing rift between the owner and the fans, with attendances down the club have offered 10,000 free season tickets to current match goers. While that will boost attendances, is it a sign that the owner is feeling the pressure from the fans?
As we head towards 2020, it is clear to see Newcastle is anything but United. There are always underlying murmurs of interested parties who would like to take over from Ashley but fans have been left sceptical of any such story. Until it happens, it is hard to see the club moving forwards but who knows what 2020 will bring. The only certainty is that it will never be dull on Tyneside.
You can follow Dave on Twitter @CM9798