Season Preview 14/15: NEWCASTLE UNITED

by Sam Mills

Alan PardewIt was the 4th February this year when the news unfolded that Joe Kinnear had resigned from his post as Director of Football with Newcastle United.

During his eight month tenure, Kinnear had failed to sign a single player (despite a strong recommendation of a certain Shane Ferguson and privately announcing the signing of Egyptian winger Mohammed Salah for £25 million), conducted a typically catastrophic interview on the radio (Llambias became Lambeeze while ‘Cabaye’ and ‘Ben Arfa’ were butchered) and sold Frenchman (obviously) Yohan Cabaye for considerably less than the £25 million asking price.

With the Irishman’s second spell at St James’ over, fans began to look up. Perhaps Kinnear’s unceremonious departure would mark a drastic change in fortunes for United. Perhaps, without Kinnear breathing heavily down his neck, Pardew could recapture the form of years ago that saw the gaffer pick up the LMA Manager of the Year Award.

On the contrary, Newcastle has lost the last nine of 12 games since March of this year, making for somewhat bleak reading. Such defeats include a 4-0 drubbing to a limp Manchester United and a 3-0 defeat to their friends the other side of the River Wear; incidentally, new signing Jack Colback scored the humiliating third that day, single-handedly defying the ‘if you can’t beat them’ adage as he will be representing Newcastle next term. In addition, the Magpies, complete with players such as de Jong and Colback, suffered at the hands of Oldham on Tuesday, by two goals to one – although, how much one can read into a pre-season result is debateable.

Last season: 10th

Odds: 1000-1

Transfers in: Ayoze Perez (Tenerife, £1.5 million), Jack Colback (Sunderland, free), Siem de Jong (Ajax, £6 million), Emmanuel Riviere (Monaco, £6 million), Remy Cabella (Montpellier, £12 million) and Daryl Janmaat (Feyenoord, £5 million)
Transfers out: Mathieu Debuchy (Arsenal £12 million), Sylvain Marveaux (Guingamp, loan), Dan Gosling (Bournemouth, free), Shola Ameobi (released), Connor Newton (Rotherham United, free) and Michael Richardson (released).

What’s new?

Newcastle personified average: they finished 10th in the league; crashed out of the Capital One Cup in the fourth round and furtively exited the FA Cup after just 90 minutes. The season before United were relegation fodder, concluding the season at an unimpressive 16th. Yet, in the 2011-2012 campaign they reached the heady heights of 5th in the Premier League – an accomplishment that seems a world away from the floundering form of the current side – receiving plaudits from across Europe.

Newcastle is suffering from a dearth of quality in the striking department. It is no coincidence that Newcastle’s change in fortunes has correlated with a trough in success up front. Papiss Cisse, the former Freiburg hitman who appeared to fit seamlessly in the England’s top flight with a prolific first six months on Tyneside, has cut a sorry figure in recent years, scoring a meagre two goals in the Premier League last term. To compounds matters, the solution to this problem has returned to Queens Park Rangers.

Moreover, attitudes at the club are poor. Pre-season started on the 15th, but the overwhelming majority of the Newcastle squad have been on holiday since February. Too many players are content to pick up the proverbial pay cheque every week, a trend that some have attributed to the influx of mercenary Frenchman.

One such Frenchman is Hatem Ben Arfa, the Tunisian-born number 10 who embodies inconsistency, a trait exacerbated by him being starved of first-team football last season. Granted, Ben Arfa can be sensational, but it all too infrequent. Currently Ben Arfa is providing the perfect case study to illustrate the faults in the Magpies’ playing staff: he is 1.5kg overweight (he claims it is muscle mass) and refuses to co-operate in a move to an unnamed Ukrainian bidder.

Unsurprisingly, bookies have them at 1000-1 to lift the Premier League Trophy in May; and at around 8-1 to go down. The odds certainly aren’t confidence-boosting, especially considering how little bookies give away at this stage in the season.

On a more positive note, the off-season has proved productive for Newcastle. They have been active in the transfer market, one such recruit being Tenerife prospect Ayoze Perez. Perez is an unknown quantity, but he could emerge to be a key player should he be utilised as more than just an impact sub. By the same token, Perez may be one of those who gets loaned out after a season and slowly drifts into footballing obscurity, read: Gael Kakuta.

Further signings are Dutch duo Daryl Janmaat and Siem de Jong. Janmaat had an impressive World Cup, creating two goals and helping the Netherlands to third place in Brazil. In fact, Janmaat could prove to be a more dependable option at full-back than Debuchy both in an offensive and defensive sense. Attacking midfielder Siem de Jong was not involved in the Dutch World Cup effort but could be a crucial procurement. De Jong, whose style is similar to Christian Eriksen, will be hoping to redeem the family name after his brother’s rather forgettable loan spell. He has already found the net sporting the iconic stripes as he struck a bouncing ball into the top corner at Boundary Park, surpassing his brother’s feeble record within minutes.

The final arrivals are French pair Emmanuel Riviere and Remy Cabella. Riviere is a journeyman forward who bagged a goal every other start for Monaco last term – the forward could counter United’s goal-scoring woes. Similarly, Remy Cabella was outstanding for Montpellier; earning a spot in the French team of the season. Cabella is talented. He has already been clumsily branded as Cabaye’s replacement, but his duty in the team is different to Cabaye’s. While the two share a grace and elegance, Cabaye adopted the more withdrawn deep lying playmaker role in Newcastle, whereas Cabella is a more dynamic entity who contributes more in terms of goals (he scored 14 times in 36 appearances for Montpellier last season).

The acquisitions are excellent, strengthening in weak areas and welcoming genuine talent while remaining financial sensible. More activity seems unlikely but there are stories emerging that Pardew is keeping tabs on midfielders Jack Rodwell and Clement Grenier, while, according to some sources, a deal has been made in principle for exciting Lyon forward Alexandre Lacazette.

In the same way, the players leaving St James’ Park are surplus to requirements and mark a step in the right direction. Dead wood Shola Ameobi and Dan Gosling depart while ill-disciplined right-back Mathieu Debuchy, who picked up nine yellow and red cards during his second season on Tyneside, has been sold to Arsenal for a healthy profit; concluding a rejuvenating and refreshing few weeks.

Key Player

Newcastle’s key player is Vurnon Anita. Anita is not a headline-grabber. In fact, he is a pretty ordinary player, the water-carrier, winning the ball and passing it. Since signing, Anita has been underwhelming and overlooked. Yet, towards the end of last season he began to influence games more and more, and, I believe that if Newcastle has a good season, Anita will. Thus, the diminutive Dutchman will be the key player for United in the coming season. Watch him carefully and you will begin to admire the efforts of the unsung anchor man.

One to Watch

Another player to keep an eye on is youngster Adam Campbell – Newcastle’s one to watch. Campbell is a striker, a poacher. The name may ring some bells as he drew some attention in his appearance in the Europa League in 2012, becoming the youngest player to feature for the Magpies in European competitions. Campbell already has heads turning: he won the Most Valuable Player award at the 2010 Nike Cup at Old Trafford and was awarded Premier Player of the Tournament at the 2012 Milk Cup. The 19-year-old won’t be difficult to spot with his brilliant flash of red hair and, more importantly, his startling exuberance and knack for being in the right place at the right time.

Season Prediction

I am confident that Newcastle can rekindle the form they produced years ago. The success of a few years ago is not unrepeatable, nor is it unassailable, but there are significant flaws that must be addressed. Pardew recognises that the Toon has been underperforming and he has clearly stated a desire “to be stronger than we [Newcastle] were last season”. He has also cited the German tournament that Newcastle will participate in later this month as the first opportunity to see what his side are made of.

Reluctantly I will walk into the elephant trap of predicting a league position for the Toon ahead of next season. Considering their transfer activity and gradual change in attitudes, I am going to go for a safe 8th.

They will have a solid if unremarkable campaign – improvement but not groundbreaking progress.

BPF Prediction: 8th

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