Action Images via Reuters/Matthew Childs
Newcastle United are in a peculiar situation.
Having overachieved by finishing in the top half of the table last season, it's unlikely that the first XI will look much different next time around. There has been activity in the transfer market, but it appears a missed opportunity to build on some good foundations, with an uneasy sense that their Premier League competitors are showing more ambition this summer.
Newcastle finished last season strongly, swerving a relegation battle by defeating Manchester United, Arsenal, Leicester and Chelsea. But they cannot be reasonably expected to maintain that form, and the new signings don't appear to be of the requisite quality to improve things.
Rafael Benitez appears increasingly frustrated, not alleviated by a set of poor pre-season results. Any positivity or momentum from the end of last season appears extinguished. Same as it ever was.
2017/18 Season Review
Last season, their first back in the top flight, was a series of stops and starts. Being defeated by Tottenham and Huddersfield in the opening two fixtures gave the campaign an early fatalistic feeling, but consecutive wins over West Ham, Swansea and Stoke put them fleetingly in the top four come September.
But as the days got shorter, they suffered a diabolical run of form, only winning two of the following sixteen games to leave them one point above an especially sorry relegation zone going into 2018. Anxiety grew as Newcastle failed to make any desperately needed signings in the January transfer window, but three late loan deals helped.
There was hope that Islam Slimani would end their profligacy in front of goal, but he only made four appearances and failed to score. Kenedy, though — Chelsea's Brazilian winger — was effective and added attacking impetus, whilst Dubravka made a series of show-stopping performances, most memorably against Manchester United in a 1-0 win.
Action Images via Reuters/Lee SmithAt the turn of 2018, their fortunes changed: they only lost to high-flying Liverpool and Manchester City between January and mid-April, at which point they had secured Premier League survival.
Jonjo Shelvey and Jamaal Lascelles performed at such a high level during the spring that many were calling for them to represent England at the World Cup, and Ayoze Perez went on a late goal-scoring run, with a few beauties for good measure, making him their top scorer.
Benitez has spoken of his desire to bring silverware to Newcastle, but he had neither the depth to compete on multiple fronts, nor a first team capable of challenging.
Fee: Undisclosed (reportedly £4 million)
The Czech goalkeeper was a no-brainer. Patently an upgrade on Karl Darlow and Rob Elliot, he was exceptional for Newcastle while on loan during the latter half of last season.
He's already created quite the highlights reel of stunning saves, and if he maintains the same form, Newcastle have a safe pair of hands going forward.
The captain of South Korea endured a difficult season at Swansea as they were relegated, but he is an experienced Premier League player and will add another option to a midfield left thin by the departure of Mikel Merino.
Action Images via Reuters/Lee SmithHe reportedly turned down offers from Everton and AC Milan to sign for Benitez's team, and will join the likes of Jack Colback, Lee Clark and Barry Venison in the list of names to play for both Newcastle and Sunderland.
There were some bright sparks from Kenedy in his brief loan spell last season. He responded well to the management of Benitez and was clearly benefiting from regular game-time, having played more competitive minutes for Newcastle in three short months than in three years at Chelsea and Watford combined.
It took some time for him to get fully up to speed, and completing 90 minutes was a problem, but with a full pre-season behind him he should be able to contribute to the fullest.
Newcastle fans will be hoping for regular repeats of his performance against Southampton, in which he scored two goals in the first thirty minutes. His deliveries from corners are dangerous, too.
Fee: Undisclosed (reportedly £3 million)
The centre-half has been a mainstay of Vladimir Petkovic's robust Switzerland team for the past four years, but hasn't stood out to the same extent at club level. It was a mistake to join Deportivo La Coruna last summer, as they were a shambles and lacked the strategy, personnel or coach(es) to mould a decent defensive unit.
Benitez is the right man to get his career back on track, and he'll be a useful player, especially with Florian Lejeune injured for the foreseeable future.
Fee: Undisclosed (reportedly £9.5 million)
The Japan striker failed to impress at the World Cup, being brought in for the final group game against Poland, he looked ineffective as they slumped to a nearly very costly 1-0 defeat. But he has the excuse that it was a heavily rotated side that lacked cohesion. Fans of his former club Mainz rate him well, too.
He's not the most prolific goalscorer, and his best record in the Bundesliga was last season's total of eight. But he possesses good movement and intelligence, with an ability to bring those behind him into play.
Benitez will be hoping that this gets the best out of Perez and Kenedy, but a non-goal-scoring centre-forward with other qualities sounds similar to both Joselu and Dwight Gayle. Newcastle should be targeting a player who can do both.
As of yet, Newcastle have only lost players who played on the fringes, or no role at all, last season.
Matz Sels, Massimo Haidara and Stuart Findlay have left for Strasbourg, Lens and Kilmarnock respectively. Chancel Mbemba was a useful squad option. but was replaced by Schar, and the jury is out on whether that's an upgrade.
Mikel Merino leaving for Real Sociedad could prove to be a mistake as the young Spaniard provided vital cover for Shelvey and showed flashes of his potential in his early performances, but the most high profile to leave is Aleksandar Mitrovic, who has joined Fulham after excelling in their promotion push.
Action Images via Reuters/John SibleyHaving joined them on loan in the winter window, he barely featured in the first half of the season and was evidently not in the manager's plans - in which case, a reported £22 million fee is good value.
He may well go on to score more Premier League goals this season than any of Newcastle's forwards, but he never fit the style Benitez instilled and his lack of discipline was always a concern.
Arguably, Newcastle haven't lost a player of great influence, but it's imperative the money is reinvested into the squad.
It's unlikely there will be any great change to the lineup that featured in the latter half of last season, because there hasn't been enough investment in key areas.
A new arrival, such as the long-rumoured Salomon Rondon from West Brom, could potentially lead the line. If not, the striker position would probably be up for grabs, though new signing Muto should be given a chance ahead of Joselu and Gayle.
Schar should slot in until Lejeune returns from injury. Dubravka, Lascelles, Dummett, Yedlin, Kenedy, Shelvey, Ritchie and Perez should be certainties. Although a move to Stoke has been rumored for Ritchie, it would leave them seriously lacking if it happened so late in the window.
Mohamed Diame, at 31, may play fewer minutes this season but should still be in the first choice XI.
The Key Question: How much longer will Benitez last?
It has strained the mood in pre-season. Benitez has never been shy about playing politics and pitting himself against the club's ownership, but his stubbornness is justified — Mike Ashley does not sufficiently invest in Newcastle United.
We knew that the position (10th): we deserved to be there. It was clear it wasn’t easy- it was a massive effort from this group of efforts and fans and everyone. But sometimes it is not enough and you cannot hope that the teams struggle every year - Benitez on Newcastle's 2017/18 season.
Benitez' assessment of the situation is correct. With promoted clubs like Wolves and Fulham showing more ambition in the transfer market, signing players Newcastle can only dream of under Mike Ashley's ownership, such as Joao Moutinho and Jean Michel Seri, not to mention the significant investment from West Ham and Everton.
They are in danger of going backwards by standing still, and the manager has every right to be frustrated and disappointed: "I am not happy, we have to just survive every year" is a stark but sober analysis of life under Ashley.
Action Images via Reuters/Lee Smith
With a genuine bond with the fans and a desire for one of the biggest clubs in the Premier League to show sufficient ambition, Benitez is too proud to sit idly by as the owner takes advantage of both him and the club. Can the relationship last this strain? Might he quit like Kevin Keegan before him? Could anybody possibly blame him?
With his contract up next summer, the club needs an entirely new approach if they're to convince him to stay.
Newcastle have an outstanding manager, as he has proven by guiding them out of the Championship on his first attempt and over-achieving by reaching the top half of the Premier League.
Almost every player — Dummett, Lascelles, Yedlin, Shelvey, Diame, Perez in particular — has improved under his coaching, and there's no reason that can't continue with the likes of Kenedy, Muto and Schar developing.
But there's a limit on how good this team can be. Top six is an impossibility, and they shouldn't possibly be expected to challenge Leicester, Everton or West Ham. 10th is the limit.
Even if Rondon joins, there's no guarantee he improves things up front. He's never scored 10 goals in a Premier League campaign, after all. Shelvey has been prone to poor spells of form throughout his career, and that could be the case again. It's a thin squad and injuries to key players, such as Lascelles or Perez, would be damaging.
Benitez could leave without the right investment, and the fans wouldn't blame him, leaving St James Park utterly toxic for the sorry individual who has to take over and be asked to work miracles.
Not only can Newcastle end back up in the purposeless spiral that has defined Ashley's reign, but they could lose a manager who represents their only hope of achieving something special. It could get very bleak. 20th.
Benitez is a man of principle and is likely to stay. Their biggest asset, he should be able to stave off relegation, and Dubravka and Kenedy playing the whole campaign is a big bonus. But the competition in the bottom half will be a lot stronger this year. 14th
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