Newcastle United suffered their second relegation under the ownership of Mike Ashley in the 2015/16 season, sending the club tumbling into the Championship. The Magpies struggled under Steve McClaren, and allowed their situation to become too perilous before sacking the former England manager with just 10 games left in the campaign.
Rafael Benitez ended the term on a six-match unbeaten run, but his efforts were in vain as the club were relegated by local rivals Sunderland. The Tynesiders were banished to the Championship for the first time in six years, but have been given hope by their strong start to the season under the Spaniard.
Newcastle bounced back at the first attempt in their previous relegation, amassing over 100 points. They will have similar ambitions this time around, and are backed in the latest Championship betting odds at 6/5 to win the second-tier crown as of September 19 and return to the top flight.
The Magpies were able to spend lavishly in the transfer market over the summer after getting premium prices for players that had underachieved for them last season. Georginio Wijnaldum and Moussa Sissoko were sold for a combined £55m to Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur respectively, allowing Benitez to retool United’s squad.
Matt Ritchie, Mohamed Diame, Dwight Gayle and Isaac Hayden dropped down from the Premier League to aid the club’s promotion push, while Ciaran Clark and Grant Hanley were added from fellow Championship sides Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers. Benitez signed 11 players in total in the transfer window, along with the loan addition of Christian Atsu, giving Newcastle the strongest squad in the division.
Ritchie, Gayle, Hanley and Daryl Murphy are experienced campaigners in the second tier and have given their new side street smarts to cope with the demands of the frenetic pace of the division. The depth of the squad will also give the Magpies opportunity to rotate their players due to the extra matches played along with commitments in the cup competitions.
One position Newcastle will look to for consistency more than most will be the keeper’s spot where injuries have plagued them over the past two seasons. Matz Sels was signed from Genk due to Rob Elliot’s knee problem, with the Belgian beating out Karl Darlow for the place between the sticks. The 24-year-old has been compared to Liverpool stopper Simon Mignolet, and if he lives up to that potential then the Magpies will be very pleased with their business at just £4.5m.
Players With Potential
United’s downfall last season was due to issues at the back, with Fabricio Coloccini and Steven Taylor struggling immensely before they were cast aside by Benitez when he assumed control in March. Chancel Mbemba and Jamaal Lascelles formed a good partnership towards the end of campaign, keeping three clean sheets, which was a significant improvement on the displays of the more experienced duo that at times had played ahead of them.
Benitez saw enough in Lascelles performances and his leadership qualities on the pitch to hand him the captain’s armband for the new season, while Mbemba’s displays pushed him ahead of new signings Clark and Hanley to form a solid base at the back for United.
After their poor start to the campaign in defeats to Fulham and Huddersfield, the Magpies kept four clean sheets on the bounce in the Championship, all of which were victories for Benitez’s men. The duo at the heart of the effort has proven to have the ability to thrive in the second tier, and due to being only in their early 20s the prospects are bright for their futures.
The form of striker Aleksandar Mitrovic will also be key to Newcastle’s surge for promotion. Andy Carroll was the driving force of the team that helped guide Chris Hughton’s United team back into the Premier League. The Serb missed the opening four matches of the campaign due to his suspension but picked up in the final game of the top-flight campaign against Tottenham Hotspur.
Mitrovic has to be a strong presence on the pitch like Carroll was in the 2009-10 season, when the England international scored 17 goals. A similar run from the forward will certainly see the Tynesiders in the mix for promotion come the end of the season, and even challenge the league record points tally of Reading’s 2006-07 term.
Can Newcastle emulate their success under Hughton?
Many supporters will have feared the worst after United suffered back-to-back defeats in the opening two matches of the campaign. However, faith was restored with an emphatic 4-1 win over Reading along with a battling display to grind out a 1-0 victory over Bristol City at Ashton Gate.
With the team’s confidence restored the Magpies swept aside three of their rivals for promotion with 2-0 triumphs over Brighton & Hove Albion and Derby County. The biggest sign that Newcastle could become record-breakers under Benitez was the 6-0 demolition of Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road, where United put in a flawless display to make a statement to the rest of the division.
Benitez will need to ensure that his team remain clinical in the final third and solid at the back, which they have already proven they are capable of doing. The blow of losing 2-0 to Wolverhampton Wanderers could be a blessing in disguise, displaying that anything other than full commitment and quality on the day will not suffice in the Championship, which is arguably the most competitive league in Europe.
There will be plenty of challenges ahead for the Spaniard and his team, especially when the wear and tear of the season begins to affect the players. However, Benitez has cultivated enough depth in his squad across the board to cope with the worst injury crisis and suspensions that will naturally occur over the course of the campaign. As a result, this Newcastle team are in even stronger position to surge towards the top of the Championship and break past the 100-point mark that will secure a return to the Premier League at the first time of asking.