Nickname: The Magpies
Home Ground: St. James Park
- 4 English Premier League Titles
- 6 FA Cup Trophies
Manager: Rafa Benitez
In the first season upon the return to the English Premier League, Newcastle United managed to finish a respectable 10th place. Two years ago, Rafa Benitez was brought in to right the ship as Newcastle United were about to get eliminated to the English Championship.
Within a year, Rafa Benitez has guided Newcastle to the English Championship title and an express trip back to the English Premier League. He didn’t stop there though, the Magpies further improved and were able to finish a respectable 10th in the Premier League.
Can Rafa Benitez and Newcastle United take another step and try to challenge for a spot in European club competitions in the upcoming season? I have prepared an overview of main Newcastle United storylines and a short preview for the upcoming English Premier League season.
Previous Season Summary
Newcastle United returned to the English Premier League with a chip on their shoulder, eager to prove that they belong among the elites and that their relegation to the English Championship was just a fluke. Under the guidance of Rafa Benitez, they entered the 2017/18 English Premier League season with a lot of confidence that they will avoid relegation.
They didn’t get off to the best of starts as they dropped their two opening games against Tottenham Hotspurs and Huddersfield town. They quickly bounced back though, as they managed to win 3 straight games against West Ham United, Swansea City, and Stoke City.
November and December were really difficult months for the Magpies, as they managed to win only one game in those two months, a 2-3 win against West Ham United. In danger of falling into the relegation zone, Newcastle United had to improve their form if they were to survive in the English Premier League.
Rafa Benitez was furious and several times criticized some of the key players in the squad. The response did come in the improved form, as Newcastle lost only 3 games in the next three and half months. They started protecting their home ground better and results started pouring in.
During this run, the Magpies have defeated Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea, their traditional rivals in the English Premier League. With the mid-table finish secure and the fans once again full of optimism, Rafa Benitez has managed to restore the faith in the club and negate any damage that a relegation might’ve caused 2 years ago.
The key to Newcastle United’s return to form was their improved defense. They finished 7th in Defense in the English Premier League with 47 goals allowed in 38 games. The only clubs that placed ahead of them are the clubs from the Big 6 group and Burnley.
A 10th place finish in the English Premier League has given Newcastle United something to build on in the future. The club has always had ambitions to break up the Big 6 party and get a taste of European club competitions and maybe, down the line, put together a squad capable of challenging for a Premier League title.
Key Additions and Departures
Newcastle United’s roster situation is a peculiar one. The club had a huge wage bill in the season they were relegated to the English Championship. Due to their terrible season, they were faced with a reduced income and availability of funds for the transfer of new players.
Rafa Benitez was aware that his roster had enough quality to successfully win the promotion to the English Premier League but that there might be problems with their current talent level in the English top-flight. Short on finances, Benitez added a number of quality players through loan contracts that helped them finish in the 10th place in the English Premier League.
For the upcoming season, Newcastle United have been shy with announcing their transfer budget for acquiring new talent and that has drawn the ire of the manager Rafa Benitez. Benitez publicly stated that he doesn’t believe that the Magpies have enough talent to make a step up compared to their previous season.
Newcastle United have decided to approach the transfer market with caution, as they stabilize their finances. Benitez was asked to reduce the squad’s wage bill and get rid of unwanted players before making any additions, so this offseason the Magpies have mostly been dealing with player departures.
Was the transfer of the Serbian striker Aleksandar Mitrovic to Fulham for a GBP 18.2 million fee. Mitrovic has already spent a half-season with Fulham last year on loan and was visibly unhappy by the lack of playing time at St. James Park, so this transfer makes a lot of sense.
Defensive midfielder Mikel Merino was next as he was shipped off to the Spanish side Real Sociedad for a GBP 10.8 million fee. Central back Chancel Mbemba followed with a GBP 7.5 million move to Porto and goalkeeper Matt Selz moved to Strasbourg for a GBP 3.7 million fee.
As I have mentioned, Newcastle United were quite conservative with their additions and are among the clubs that have spent the least amount of money this offseason. The biggest signing was the transfer of forward Yoshinori Muto from Mainz 05 for a GBP 9.6 million fee.
The other additions were the transfers of center back Fabian Schar from Deportivo La Coruna and goalkeeper Martin Dubravka from Sparta Praha for GBP 3.6 million fee apiece. Finally, the Magpies have signed the defensive midfielder Sung-Yong Ki from Swansea City on a free transfer.
Benitez is keen on adding more players to strengthen the squad before the transfer deadline. One position that Benitez is really keen on is the left back, where rumors of a transfer of Paris Saint-Germain left-back Stanley N’Soki have emerged. Another area where help is needed is at striker. After the departure of Mitrovic, the Magpies attack needs more options and depth. The key target at the position is Salomon Rondon from West Bromwich Albion.
Newcastle’s roster is still a work in progress but the core of the team that finished 10th in the English Premier League is still there. Bear in mind that Rafa Benitez is a coach that can motivate players and promote a team concept that can outperform the individual talent on the roster.
Style of Play
Rafa Benitez has built a reputation on his attention to details and immaculate preparation for matches. Benitez’s sides have always carried a team-concept where the roles and talents of the individual players are carefully selected and fit into an overall system that is greater than the sum of its parts.
Since taking over at Newcastle, Rafa Benitez has implemented a system that could get the most out of the roster that he currently had and he has done wonders with it. Newcastle are a side that has demonstrated the most consistency in their tactical approach and formations throughout the season.
Under Benitez, Newcastle line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation. The emphasis of the system is not in dominating possession or creating intricate build ups from the back of the formation but rather quick counter-attacking and getting the ball forward into danger areas as quickly as possible.
At the back of the formation, Benitez uses a 4-back defensive line that is spread wide. The fullbacks often come forward and run into open space on the wings, while the center backs are the last line of defense. When defending, Newcastle doesn’t press intensively, but rather only on their own half, when they are in the low block and their formation transforms from a 4-2-3-1 to 4-5-1.
There are two players who are key to the system. They are both box-to-box dynamos that have to be equally adept at defending and attacking, since they are the primary ball winners when they defending. At the same time, they are also the starting point of counter-attacks and regular attacking moves. Isaac Hayden and Jonjoe Shelvey and newcomer Song-Yung Ki should fill these spots.
A versatile forward Ayoze plays “in the hole” behind the lone striker and is creating constant pressure on the defensive line with his runs into space, swapping places with the wingers or overloading a certain side of the formation. Constant movement, excellence with the ball at his feet and goalscoring are all key skills for this role.
One the wings, the pace is the key as Newcastle try to stretch the field as much as possible. The left wing is the place for Christian Atsu to run at blistering space and draw defenders out, as they try to close him down. On the right wing, Matt Richie loves to cut inside from the wing and use his world-class long shot to pose a constant threat to the goal.
Alone up front is the striker/central forward who is the worker bee of the team. He is constantly moving and playing on the shoulder of either central defenders, creating opportunities for midfielders to play the balls into space for him to run into. Aerial prowess, toughness and fighting spirit are also key to this position.
As I have previously mentioned, possession is not essential to the success of Rafa Benitez’s system. He employs a strong defense that is able to create quality opportunities on the counter-attack for excellent goalscoring chances. The use of direct passing and through balls constantly creates problems for opposing defenses, so they have to be careful themselves and often decide not to overload on attacking options versus Newcastle.
2018/19 Season Expectations and Predictions
There are many questions surrounding Newcastle United as they enter the 2018/19 English Premier League season. Uncertainty regarding the roster composition, clashes between the Board and manager Rafa Benitez and thrifty approach to transfer market might all play a role in the outcome of this season.
The Magpies’ roster is still not complete and several positions are quite vulnerable to either injury or an overall lack of talent. Benitez has publicly spoken about the inability to perform at the high level unless some talent is added to the roster. So, I expect Newcastle to stay active in the transfer market all the way up to the transfer deadline on September 1st, 2018.
To make everything worse, Newcastle are facing the toughest opening schedule in the league. They will open the season at home versus Tottenham Hotspurs, and in their first 5 games of the season they will also be facing Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City.
That is an absolutely brutal schedule that might leave Newcastle point-less during that stretch. If late additions to the roster are expected, it will be extremely difficult to get them up to speed before these games vs Big 6 opponents roll around.
Things will start to look up for Newcastle United schedule-wise around mid-October. A favorable run of fixtures until Christmas should help Newcastle stabilize their league position and maybe even create a run or two.
Yet, Rafa Benitez has always fielded competitive teams who have outplayed their individual talent, as a collective unit. Who can forget his Liverpool moments, or even last season in the Premier League with Newcastle United?
This is why I picked Newcastle United to finish 11th in the English Premier League, as they are still lacking the talent to challenge for a top 7 spot but should be able to comfortably control their own destiny in the middle of the table.