While some question the way Newcastle United have crossed the Championship promotion line, perhaps the unconvincing nature of their performances could bring positives in the long-term.
Rafa Benitez was reportedly not too happy with the club’s failure to land his top transfer targets in January. That was not because it affected their promotion chances, or indeed even their chances of winning the league itself which as of April 27th, currently stand at odds of 11/2 according to Betway.
Following that disagreement, had Newcastle romped to 100 points as they had once been on course to do, the board’s claims might have held more weight. After a more modest entry to top flight, the need for investment is just as clear to everyone as it is to Rafa. It is imperative that the club offers the financial backing to convince the Spaniard to stay, for political reasons as much as footballing ones.
Measured in Premier League terms, Newcastle have a squad with quantity more than quality. Their strength in reserve has proved useful in the Championship, with weaker opposition but shorter recovery periods. In the Premier League however, not many of their players are of the calibre required to lift Newcastle to the level they want to be. For that reason, they should make a small number of signings but show ambitions in the deals they do instigate.
There are question marks over the defence. Jamaal Lascelles has had some shaky moments lately while Ciaran Clark’s good form is not backed up by performances in the top flight. Benitez may want to relegate the former to a back-up role with Grant Hanley out of favour and Chancel Mbemba delivering questionable displays. An experienced head may be needed and Ryan Shawcross, available due to his contract running out in a year, could provide some knowhow and leadership.
At left-back Paul Dummett struggles to make quick, overlapping runs or deliver a good cross. Though a shrewd and committed player who excels in the defensive third, Dummett lacks the versatility required in a modern full-back. Luke Shaw is a more complete footballer in that area and, having not completed 90 minutes for Manchester United since January due to a reported falling out with the manager, could become available.
Also required is a strong, holding midfielder to compliment Jonjo Shelvey, because Jack Colback, however willing, lacks the power and presence to fill that role. Isaac Hayden is more dynamic and his runs into the final third have been key to breaking down bus-parking opposition, but at a higher level his forays may leave Shelvey exposed.
Toon need a midfielder close to the 11/12 version of Cheick Tiote, who provided the perfect foil for Yohan Cabaye – a similar player to Shelvey – when Newcastle finished fifth. Claudio Yacob, who may want a change after five years at West Brom, or Mohamed Elneny, who has slipped down the pecking order at Arsenal, could be ambitious but attainable moves. Either would provide the power and tenacity to make up for the lack of defensive diligence we sometimes see from Shelvey, a guaranteed starter purely for his excellent creativity, craft and control.
Who the ex-Liverpool man’s pinpoint forward passes will be picking out is less certain. Speedsters Sammy Ameobi and Adam Armstrong have done well on loan at Bolton and Barnsley respectively, but may not yet be of the required standard. Mohamed Diame and Christian Atsu can produce flashes of brilliance but face questions over application and consistency, while at 30 Yoann Gouffran has hardly torn the league apart.
Matt Ritchie’s clever movement and incisive technique has made him one of the Championship’s stand-out players this term. Him and Dwight Gayle, the latter having started only three matches since January, are arguably Newcastle’s only final third performers who could get into a top half Premier League side.
The respectable form of Aleksandar Mitrovic and Daryl Murphy may delay a move for another striker, if Benitez can attract quality in the attacking midfield positions. Left-sider Kevin Mirallas is not getting in the Everton team, despite being their joint-second highest assisting player. He combines a reasonable return of 1.3 key passes per game with good ball retention statistics, 81.8% of his passes completed ( According to WhoScored).
To finance potentially exciting deals for Mirallas, Shawcross, Shaw or Yacob, Newcastle must be ruthless with back-up players in those positions. They have a squad good enough to stay in the division, but high-profile improvements are needed to deliver the competitive, top half team the club and fans deserve.