A cold, northern wind of change blows through Newcastle. Can Steve McClaren build on a woeful last season?
“A statement of intent.” That’s what Steve McClaren called Newcastle spending £14.5 million on PSV midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum and £13m on Anderlecht striker Aleksandar Mitrovic. The fees are the biggest in the eight-year Mike Ashley era, and the owner has stated a desire to win a cup, publicly offering £3.25m in player bonuses for silverware. New boss McClaren knows from his days down the road at Middlesbrough how much a cup run can unify a club and community, but he also knows from bitter experience how football fans react to underachievement. This really could go either way.
What the fan says
St James' Park season ticket holder Andy Gurr gives FourFourTwo his thoughts on the upcoming campaign.
Why they’ll do well
McClaren is a smart cookie who’s led underachievers out of the desert: he took Boro to their first trophy and Twente to their first league title. His successes have been based more on coaching than chequebooks, so he’s Newcastle’s best hope of maximising those squad members bought for “potential” (i.e. resale value) rather than current ability. Even so, the signs are that Ashley is relaxing the Moneyball mantra: Mitrovic and especially Wijnaldum should be ready to step up from the Low Countries, while the Serbian’s Anderlecht team-mate Chancel Mbemba seems set to add much-needed pace and muscularity to the backline. Add in an established spine of players from Tim Krul through Fabricio Coloccini, Cheick Tiote and Moussa Sissoko to Papiss Cisse, and McClaren’s talk of a top-eight place isn’t wildly optimistic.
Why they’ll do badly
They’re Newcastle: it’s what they do, distressingly often. The fixture list doesn’t help: of the first eight league games, six are against teams in last season’s top eight. Early defeats might shake the club’s fragile self-belief. The hesitancy often shows on the pitch. Too often the Toon were timid last season, playing two holding midfielders and isolating the striker. McClaren has said he wants them “10 yards higher” to get men into the box supporting their expensive, but not particularly pacy, new striker. Mitrovic is risky because he’s a bit of a loose cannon: his time in Belgium included headbutts, red cards, weight gains and a row over a ‘sexual’ celebration – and he’s still only 20. So is Mbemba, a young centre-back who can’t speak English, and there aren’t many players who’ve switched smoothly and immediately from the Belgian league.
The big questions...
1) Will off-pitch problems overshadow the team?
Ashley has opened his wallet but he’ll never be popular. The club has also now estranged much of the media by excluding all bar “preferred partners”. A winning team soothes most troubles, but few clubs are as poised as Newcastle to plunge into bitterness.
- Georginio Wijnaldum (PSV Eindhoven)
- Aleksandar Mitrovic (Anderlecht)
- Sammy Ameobi (Cardiff City; loan)
- Jonas Gutierrez (Released)
- Ryan Taylor (Released)
- Adam Campbell (Released)
2) They’re spending big, but are they spending clever?
Breaking the eight-figure barrier doesn’t necessarily guarantee success. Mitrovic might well come good, but Charlie Austin wasn’t much more: might they have been better going for proven Premier quality?
3) Can Tiote bridge the language gap?
Newcastle’s transfer policy over recent seasons has led to a largely bilingual dressing room: around a dozen first-teamers speak French. Ivorian Tiote won the league with McClaren at Twente; he (along with captain Coloccini) must get the sizeable Francophone set onside.
Key player: Georginio Wijnaldum
The Belgian buys may need time to settle, but Newcastle will want immediate results from their new Dutch midfielder. Now 24, he has eight (yes, eight) years’ Eredivisie experience, culminating in captaining PSV to the title in April before crossing the Channel. Right-sided but minded to roam the attacking third, he will add to the Geordie goal threat – he scored 14 last term – while rarely losing the ball: his 84.5% passing accuracy last season is particularly impressive considering his attacking bent.
What we’ll be saying come May
With Newcastle, things are seldom easy, but they aren’t often complicated. Either the Geordie Nation will rejoice as McClaren rallies the club via canny buys, improved performances and a cup run or two… or the underachievement will continue, questions will be asked, banners displayed and boos chorused. Forced to choose, FFT would predict the former. No, the latter. No, the former.
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