Welcome to Newcastle United, 3.0.
After swerving relegation in year one and then shooting up the Premier League last season, what comes next for a club who have been transformed on and off the pitch since a takeover by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund in October 2021?
Can their uplift continue along the same trajectory or will this be a season of consolidation as they get to grips with a return to the Champions League?
One thing feels certain — other teams will be waiting for them.
What would be a good season?
Ah man, this feels more difficult to answer than in previous years. Having got to a cup final and finished fourth last season, asking Newcastle to make another leap feels problematic given they are already way ahead of schedule. Do they have the squad to truly compete on another front? Will they cope with the extra matches and travel in a competition most of their players and staff have never experienced before? Will more established clubs get their acts together back home?
Just as most Newcastle fans would back coach Eddie Howe and his team to rise to these challenges, most are realistic, too. In the circumstances, a place in the top six when the music stops next May would represent another season of progress, even while drifting a position or two backwards; the big idea is to be up there every year, not just once.
Advancing past the group stage of the Champions League would set down a marker and be a bonus. Winning something – winning anything – remains the ultimate goal, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
What would be a bad season?
Regression. But again, what exactly would that look like? Finishing out of the European places would be uncomfortable for a club who want to become a fixture in them, but the worst thing would be something less tangible — the club losing the special alchemy behind their recent rise, the collective effort and spirit and unity and the clamour of a matchday at St James’ Park. To be fair, there’s little sign of that happening.
In a squad with more quality, Howe has warned that keeping players not getting as much game time as they’d like happy will be key to Newcastle’s “dynamic”. An underdog spirit has accompanied the team since the takeover — and, yes, that is a bit of a contradiction, given the club’s extraordinary (theoretical) wealth — but that becomes more difficult to maintain.
Howe told The Athletic last week that he expects this season to be more of a challenge because “we have a target on our backs now. I think we’re more well-known in terms of our strengths, so we have to be better in every area.”
Biggest problem to fix?
For once — incredibly — there’s nothing broken at Newcastle (“Hold my beer,” says the decades of mismanagement and mishap). There was a blip over ticket pricing for non-season ticket holders recently, but the club listened to the concerns of supporters and quickly modified the policy.
In terms of the team, the main ‘problem’ has been how to improve a side good enough to finish fourth while you’re being constrained by financial fair play (FFP) and it is fair to say that Howe has squirmed his way through a lot of the summer. With three senior signings through the door so far — Sandro Tonali, Harvey Barnes and now Tino Livramento — Newcastle have added quality, but have they done enough?
Howe would ideally like to add pacy competition at centre-half and cover at left-back.
Most exciting signing?
Howe does not like the word ‘statement’ but it is difficult to think of Tonali’s arrival from AC Milan as anything else; an Italy international, a recent winner of Serie A, fresh from playing in the Champions League semi-finals, leaving an elite club in the face of elite competition for his services.
The hope is he will dovetail with Bruno Guimaraes and ease some of the pressure off the shoulders of a player who Newcastle could not win without last season. It may take Tonali time to acclimatise to Howe’s tactics and demands, but they have added genuine class here.
Inside Sandro Tonali’s €70m Newcastle deal: ‘These boys are coming to be part of history’
Saddest to see him go?
Allan Saint-Maximin was a rare spark of light during the dour latter years of the Mike Ashley era (as opposed to the toxic, batshit early years). True, he was inconsistent, granted, he took more management than most players and, yes, tracking back was not a strength, but Newcastle relied upon him to dig them out of a hole.
When the club were going nowhere, he was a whispered promise of something better.
Under Howe, other heroes emerged and last season was mediocre in terms of the Frenchman’s fitness, but seeing him dribble at defenders was always a thrill. His departure to Saudi Arabia was all about recycling money, which is vital for the club’s FFP status, but Saint-Maximin’s glitter will be missed.
Adieu, mon brave.
What do they still need to do in the transfer market?
Some of this is addressed above.
Howe has ruled out making any more additions in attack, while the midfield looks well stocked. At the back, they have fewer options and the minor hamstring injury Fabian Schar suffered in the July 26 friendly against Chelsea in the U.S. has caused a tremor of concern. The Switzerland international is expected to return for Saturday evening’s Premier League opener at home to Aston Villa, but Newcastle do not have huge depth, or speed, in the middle of their defence. Loans are an option.
They also have a wage bill to trim and surplus players to ship out — people including Ryan Fraser, Jeff Hendrick and Isaac Hayden, who are not training with the first-team squad.
Biggest tactical tweak or pre-season change from last season?
There isn’t much. Howe gave three at the back a go on that three-match tour in America but it wasn’t massively convincing and had more to do with in-game adaption than a true change of style.
Newcastle will still favour the 4-3-3, they will play aggressively and they will press teams hard. The differences will largely come from fresh personnel: Tonali and Guimaraes as a double pivot in midfield; the directness of Barnes rather than Saint-Maximin’s dribbling; what a confident and fully integrated Anthony Gordon will bring following his arrival in January.
“It will be the same Newcastle (as last season), but I want an improvement and I want to tweak things continually to improve,” Howe said at the weekend. “But it won’t be radically different, and I don’t think it can be. Why would we deviate too much from what’s worked? If you’re absolutely the same you’re effectively going backwards, so we’re always trying to innovate and bring new ideas to the team, in whatever phase of play that is.”
What you may have missed in pre-season
A nice welcome for Tonali from Kieran Trippier, tailgating in Philadelphia, the emergence of Lewis Miley — Newcastle’s 17-year-old prodigy, the continued reintegration of former players, Miguel Almiron’s belated goodbye to Atlanta United, his previous club.
What might be the manager’s undoing?
I mean, all managers have to win matches and Howe isn’t immune from pressure. But there isn’t anything else, is there? In Eddie, we trust.
Song the fans should sing but don’t (yet)?
Maybe hum rather than sing it, but not too long to wait now…
What else is new about the club this summer?
Digital ticketing, a standing section in the Gallowgate corner, a fan zone on the way, that Amazon documentary, a new front-of-shirt sponsor, a return to European football… following Newcastle these days is a constant revolution.
Predicted XI for the opening game
The big dilemmas: Sean Longstaff is Newcastle’s running man, but after missing a couple of weeks of pre-season with a groin niggle, is he properly Premier League match fit?; does Tonali come straight in or is he given time to acclimatise?; Barnes or Gordon in the left attacking role?; is there a place for Elliot Anderson, their star of pre-season?
(Top photo: Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images)