Newcastle United: The 2017/18 season report card
It was a topsy-turvy season at St. James’ Park that ended positively, but how did the Magpies perform over the course of the campaign?
Off-field uncertainty, on-field inconsistency. It was a season that could have gone much worse, a season that could have gone much better, but ultimately was a much-needed season of stability for Newcastle United.
Going into the campaign having made a return from the Championship at the first time of asking in impressive style, much of the pre-season emphasis and aim was on one goal: survive.
Newcastle United fans are all too familiar with the feeling of being exasperated at the reluctance of the board – namely controversial owner Mike Ashley – to make available the funds that many see as a requirement.
Rumours that manager Rafael Benitez’s patience with the club’s stance was wearing thin swirled, as fans feared that their newest hero, their saviour, would decide that enough was enough.
As August rolled around though, it became clear that Benitez (and the Geordie faithful) would have to play the hand they had been dealt – and he did just that…
Although perhaps lacking in any real significance in terms of ‘marquee’ or ‘big name’ signings, it was a busy summer transfer window at St. James’ Park.
Several players who either found themselves on the fringes of the squad were troubled, or thrown into the proverbial ‘deadwood’ category, left the club.
Winger Florian Thauvin, defender Grant Hanley and attackers Siem de Jong and Daryl Murphy were among those who were moved on for fees.
Meanwhile, the offer a new contract wasn’t on the table for the likes of Vurnon Anita, Tim Krul and out-of-favour midfielders Yoan Gouffran and Haris Vuckic, as they all departed the club on a free transfer.
The generated funds were re-invested, as Christian Atsu made his loan move permanent, Joselu arrived from Stoke City to bolster an on-paper weak frontline, winger Jacob Murphy arrived from Norwich and centre half Florian Lejeune was draughted in from Spanish side Eibar.
Despite the influx of newer, fresh talent, the spine of the squad remained the same, and it was much of the same spine that saw the club relegated two seasons previous. Fans were fearing the worst – that the squad hadn’t been strengthened enough to compete.
Benitez and his side, though, started the season off brightly enough to quash any fears.
A 1-0 win over Crystal Palace saw the Toon as high as 7th in the table after nine games, but it was initial happiness and belief that would soon come crashing down.
They lost eight of their next nine games, with a solitary point coming against fellow strugglers West Bromwich Albion. Benitez’s men were struggling in front of goal, too, with only six strikes in that period.
The initially put-to-bed cries for transfer funds quickly resurfaced. For many Newcastle fans, the upcoming January window was crucial.
A much tidier, more consistent run followed. Newcastle tightened up at the back and were defeated only twice between a 3-2 victory at West Ham United before Christmas, and the beginning of March – a run which included a 1-0 victory over Manchester United.
The January window saw Slovakian Martin Dubravka arrive to provide goalkeeping consistency, and attack-minded Kenedy and Islam Slimani were also brought in on loan to keep Newcastle ticking over.
Amid ongoing speculation of an impending takeover of the club, severely limiting Newcastle’s ability to do any business; Benitez found his hands tied once more.
Ending the season in true Jekyll-and-Hyde style with five wins and five defeats, the 2017/18 campaign turned out to be a relatively happy one; it was an ending that surprised many, given the off-field gloom in the summer.
Domestic cup performances
So much is the importance of securing top-flight status, at least for most clubs outside the top eight in the division, that the attention and time given to domestic cup competitions is gradually dwindling.
Newcastle United are no exception to the rule, and with much of the effort and focus being put into plotting a route to Premier League safety, that tournament football is neglected, no less so in this season’s edition of the League Cup.
Benitez, as many Premier League managers do, fielded a weakened side for the home clash with Nottingham Forest in the first round of the competition.
It was a move that backfired as Forest ended up nicking a 3-2 in extra time after the game had finished all-square at full-time; it was the second season in a row that the Magpies have been eliminated at the first hurdle.
The story was much the same in the FA Cup, with Newcastle perhaps rather unfortunate to draw then-Premier League champions Chelsea away in the tournament’s third round.
Chelsea boss Antonio Conte fielded a near full-strength side, and Chelsea ran out comfortable 3-0 winners.
With Premier League status secured in a more comfortable fashion than expected, can Newcastle afford to throw a little more caution to the wind and go for a cup run next season?
Highlight of the season
Arguably, the hat could be tipped to any of Newcastle’s wins in the second-half of the season.
The 2-1 home win over Arsenal, though, will be remembered as the game that all but guaranteed the Magpies’ survival and booked their ticket at the top table for next term.
The win over Arsene Wenger’s men was the final game in a nine-game run that saw Newcastle lose only once (to a rampant Liverpool) and pick up 18 points.
It was also the fourth home win in a row for the club as they tore away from the bottom-half of the division.
Lowlight of the season
Ironically, at the opposite and of the spectrum, Newcastle’s lowest point of the season came after the reverse fixture at the Emirates Stadium.
The 1-0 defeat at Arsenal was the fourth in a row and eight in nine games; it put the Magpies into the relegation zone.
With only one win in 13 following the narrow loss, the early season optimism had evaporated, and a miserable Christmas for Toon fans was very much on the cards.
Player of the season
There have been several standout performers, at different stages of the season that could have their name thrown into the that.
Ayoze Perez has had an incredible end to the season, scoring six goals in the last eight games having only netted twice all season beforehand. Perez’s end of season form can be seen as a contributing factor to the positive’s that the club have to take forward into next season.
Jonjo Shelvey has also had a much-improved season, especially in the second-half. While not perhaps impressing in numbers and obvious stats with only one goal and four assists all season, Shelvey’s impact and passing ability in the Newcastle midfield has been massive.
His disciplinary record, which has often been a black mark on his reputation, has also markedly improved – he was very unlucky not to make the England World Cup squad.
As the standout performer over the course of the entire season, though, look no further than Jamaal Lascelles. The centre half has been a revelation in the Newcastle backline and his performances have to be commended.
His absence in the run-up to Christmas was felt, as he watched his side concede 15 goals in the five games he was forced to sit out through injury. Compare this to the concession of only five goals in the same amount of games after returning, and the numbers speak for themselves.
Lascelles has been an instrumental captain this season for Newcastle United and is quickly endearing himself to the huge fanbase. And he, like Shelvey, can count himself unfortunate to be watching the World Cup from home this summer.
Will Newcastle be able to build on this season and challenge for the top eight next season?