With the 2020/21 Premier League season on the horizon, The Hard Tackle takes a closer look at Newcastle United’s journey ahead under Steve Bruce.
Newcastle United are often regarded as one of the most traditional clubs in English football. Yet, they have been ravaged by mediocrity, and the pressure of expectations in recent years, followed by a failed takeover that has led to a loss of identity.
Among all this, a relatively successful season under Steve Bruce serves as a glimmer of hope for the fans. The Magpies were, indeed, way clear of the threat of relegation last season and though the layer of pessimism looms large, following a disappointing summer, there isn’t any shred of doubt regarding the fighting ability of the players and the coach.
And here, at The Hard Tackle, we will take a closer look at Newcastle United’s prospects ahead of the 2020/21 Premier League campaign as the club tries to move on and regain an identity in the top tier of English football.
Prelude – The Backdrop
Newcastle United’s summer of 2019 was foiled by the unfortunate departure of Rafael Benitez and the subsequent arrival of Steve Bruce, a former Sunderland manager. It forced the club to go back to square one while simultaneously invoking massive outrage from the fans, particularly on club’s chairman, Mike Ashley.
Survival was once again the main agenda for the Magpies, but their hopes weren’t alight following a disastrous start to the campaign as they secured only one victory in their first seven games. Newcastle mostly hovered around the relegation zone until an excellent run from early November to early December, that notably saw them hold Manchester City to a draw, while securing wins over Sheffield United, Southampton, West Ham United and Bournemouth.
Subsequently, Newcastle United managed to stay substantially ahead of the relegation zone even though they largely remained in the bottom half of the table. They also completed league doubles over Bournemouth, Southampton and Sheffield United during the second half of the campaign.
However, a major injury crisis, especially in the defensive department, during the back end of the season saw the Tyneside outfit struggle to construct a winning momentum. As a result, they lost four of their last five league matches, with only bottom club Norwich City accumulating a worse record during that period.
Fortunately, the Magpies had already done enough to secure a comfortable 13th place finish in the league. One of Newcastle United’s biggest flaws under Steve Bruce was the lack of productivity in the final third. They scored only 38 goals in 38 matches – fourth lowest in the league. They also had the fifth-lowest amount of attempts on goal and were sixth-lowest in terms of key passes made in the final third.
Defensively, Bruce’s men were one of the most determined sides in the league, making 934 clearances – more than any other team in the league. So one can imagine that the Magpies would employ a similar strategy in the upcoming season – defending in deep blocks while playing on the counter, utilising the dynamism and pace of their forwards.
It goes without saying that Newcastle United’s business in the transfer market has been greatly disturbed by takeover talks, with a consortium led by Saudi Arabia. The move did not materialise due to multiple reasons, including Mike Ashley as well as a global pandemic and Mohammed Bin Salman’s poor human rights record, among others.
Proud to have been part of the team getting @JamesPiotr Newcastle Takeover story out for @TifoFootball_ & @TheAthleticUK – Storytelling at its best. #storytelling #journalism #ethics #illustration https://t.co/UjXN4qrUBi@TheAthletic article: https://t.co/Zx99cQPBUP pic.twitter.com/11JOgStUGG
— Alice Devine (@Alice_Devine_) May 4, 2020
Regardless, assuming the deal would eventually happen, the Magpies were linked with a move for a plethora of world-class superstars, including Real Madrid ace Gareth Bale. But, with the takeover pretty much dead in the water, the club faces an identity crisis and are clouded by a layer of mediocrity and uncertainty heading into the new season.
However, Newcastle did manage to sign Jeff Hendrick from Burnley earlier this summer. The Irishman is expected to bolster a midfield department that lacks depth and quality. Mark Gillespie was signed from Motherwell, too, as a third-choice goalkeeper.
Aside from that, there hasn’t been any notable changes to the squad, although it is reasonable to expect Steve Bruce to make some signings, especially given the fact that he still has time. Bournemouth striker Callum Wilson and free agent Ryan Fraser are among the players who are touted to be on Newcastle’s radar and their acqusition would be a big step in the right direction.
Jeff Hendrick admits AC Milan wanted him before he opted for Newcastle: “It was a really nice feeling to know they were interested – it’s given me a confidence boost. But Newcastle is a massive club in Premier League history and there’s a real demand from the fans.” #NUFC pic.twitter.com/y6STpdGL0b
— Keith Downie (@SkySports_Keith) August 28, 2020
The ex-Hull City manager, though, desperately needs a new centre-back and perhaps even a full-back as they are still yet to bag the services of Danny Rose on a permanent basis. But more importantly, the Magpies need a new striker following a barren debut campaign of big-money star Joelinton last season and would hope they can secure Wilson’s signature.
Newcastle United kickstart their 2020/21 Premier League campaign against West Ham United, followed by a game against Brighton and Hove Albion. These are fairly balanced match-ups and securing a win in at least one of these games could bode well for the Tyneside outfit, before they face Tottenham Hotspur on Gameweek 3.
Regardless of their performances early on in the campaign, Bruce’s men must make full use of the three week period from late November to mid-December when they face Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, West Bromwich Albion, Leeds United and Fulham, with three of these clubs only gaining promotion in the new season.
Newcastle’s objective should be to secure wins over the newly-promoted teams. It would give him a massive advantage heading into the strenuous holiday schedule. One thing is for sure – the Magpies must meet their goals and expectations way ahead of schedule, knowing the fact that they will be met with a difficult fixture list during the final phase of the campaign.
Indeed, they will face clubs like Manchester City, Arsenal, Leicester City and Liverpool in their last six matches, so achieving targets and ensuring safety before that period could be imperative for Steve Bruce and his men.
Allan Saint-Maximin is, without a doubt, the most influential player for Newcastle United at the moment. The Frenchman arrived from Nice last summer and enjoyed a fruitful season in the English top-flight.
Renowned for his pace and quick footwork, Saint-Maximin is arguably the best dribbler in the Premier League right now, having averaged a whopping 4.7 dribbles during his debut season at St. James’ Park. In fact, Newcastle could have even failed to survive had it not been for his exploits in the final third.
And as we head towards the new season, the onus will once again be on Saint-Maximin to deliver the goods. His pace, unpredictability and determination make him the lone bright spark in an otherwise barren Newcastle attack.
Jonjo Shelvey was one of Newcastle United’s biggest revelations last season, especially during the back end of the campaign. The Englishman has now become a reliable option in the number eight position, from where he can dictate the tempo and help his side create chances in the final third.
The Magpies will need Shelvey now more than ever as Isaac Hayden faces an uncertain future at the club while Nabil Bentaleb has returned to FC Schalke 04. The ex-Liverpool star, therefore, will be in-charge of the midfield, although it remains to be seen whether or not he can replicate his performances in the new season.
Following an influential yet unproductive start to his Premier League career, Miguel Almiron did a decent job of silencing his critics last season, scoring four goals and providing two assists. He also averaged almost 1 key pass per game and was Newcastle’s primary ball-carrier with 1.3 successful dribbles.
In an attack that lacks the technical essence, Almiron is one of the club’s main sources of creativity. And that won’t change in the upcoming season, although the Paraguayan could still improve on his overall productivity.
Newcastle United come into the 2020/21 campaign on the back of dramatic takeover saga, which eventually did not materialise, leaving the owners exposed, the fans outraged and the players unsure of their future all the while putting additional pressure on Steve Bruce.
Fortunately, the 59-year-old is an experienced manager who knows how to bind together a bunch of players and make them play as a collective unit. It was a key component behind his success last season and the Englishman may just be able to replicate his achievement in the new season.
Despite all their mediocrity, Newcastle do have a quality side, which is only in need one or two signings and the club could easily compete for a mid-table finish. But, they might have a little problem with their lack of attacking efficiency, thus giving clubs like Everton, Southampton and Leicester City the upper hand over them in the upcoming season.
THT Prediction: 14th
Author Prediction: 13th
[Stat courtesy: Whoscored]