Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle United side surprised many on their return to the Premier League last season, finishing the year in a highly respectable 10th position.
Ahead of the 2018/19 campaign, we caught up with Magpies fan site NUFC Blog to get the low-down on progress made on and off the pitch…
What do you make of your club’s pre-season preparations, both on and off the pitch?
On the pitch we’ve been pretty poor, scoring just two goals from open play in five pre-season games and winning just one of five friendlies (which includes a shocking 4-0 hammering away to Braga), so it seems our lack of activity or ambition off the pitch has rubbed off on both Benitez and the squad.
Rafa has made his frustrations known and we’re now scrambling for deals we should’ve done months ago with just a few days of the window remaining. The manager is now entering the final year of his contract and he looks so unlikely to sign an extension after yet another summer that proves Mike Ashley won’t change for anyone.
As a result, boycott’s and protests are expected, with forcing Ashley to sell now seen as the only way to keep Benitez beyond this season.
Which of your club’s summer signing has you most excited about the new campaign?
I’m more hopeful than expectant, but I’m keen to see how Salomon Rondon will get on. He’s got the tools to be a very dangerous Premier League striker, being big, strong, mobile and good in the air, but I feel like he’s been held back a little at West Brom – having played under some pretty awful managers in some teams that really didn’t play to his strengths.
He needs to become more clinical in front of goal, but he’s one who could thrive under a top manager like Benitez.
We’re all very happy to have Kenedy back too. It’s yet another loan, but he was brilliant over the second half of last season, giving us that flair we sorely lack. Goalkeeper Martin Dubravka is one to watch too – being someone who looks like one of the signings of the summer at just shy of £4 million – and Ki Sung-Yeung looks a very tidy player.
Who’s your club’s young-player-who-could-make-a-breakthrough this season?
Sean Longstaff. He’s a 20-year old midfielder with an eye for goal and looks set to be sticking around for at least the first half of the season after impressing Rafa over the summer.
He scored several impressive long range goals during a loan spell with Blackpool last season and hasn’t looked out of place over pre-season. He probably needs another loan move away (and he would’ve got that had we signed where Rafa wanted to), but he may now get his chance if we get a few injuries.
In an ideal world we’ve have sent him out on loan and signed a new attacking midfielder, but it seems as though he may now get a shot if there’s injuries.
What will be your club’s biggest factor behind achieving its targets this season?
Last season’s 10th place finish was mainly down to our superb team spirit, hard work and organisation at the back. Maintaining that is key, but to progress we’ll have to score more goals. Our two strikers (Gayle and Joselu) scored just 10 goals between them all season last year.
The pressure is therefore on new strikers Rondon and Muto, with the likes of Perez, Ritchie and Kenedy also needing to do their bit and chip in on the goal/assist front/
What will be your club’s biggest barrier to achieving its targets this season?
The lack of investment once again this summer. Ashley has continued to penny pinch, refusing to break our 13-year old transfer record (Owen for £17m), leaving Benitez to miss out on his top targets and settle for bargain basement buys instead. Our net-spend is MINUS £26m at present.
Not only does this mean we’ve been left behind by several of ours ‘rivals’ (West Ham, Fulham and Wolves spending big), but it’s created real negativity on Tyneside once again.
Rafa sounds flat, the players seem to share his frustration and the fans are planning protests against Ashley. It’s far from ideal when we were hoping this would be the season we’d kick on after staying up (and finishing 10th!) on our first year back last season.
Which club outside yours do you think has done the best business this summer?
West Ham. They’ve done exactly what we should have after appointing a world class manager in Manuel Pellegrini – they’ve backed him.
It may not work – with it not always being easy to gel after such wholesale changes – but they’ve shown real ambition signing the likes of Felipe Anderson and Yarmalenko.
Wolves are also building one of the most exciting teams I’ve seen from a newly promoted club. They look more likely to threaten the top 10 than get relegated to me!
If you had to pick a six-a-side team from your club’s current squad, who would be in it?
Finally, how do you think your team will have done come the end of the 2018/19 season?
I think we’ll stay up, but I don’t see us replicating last season’s top 10 finish.
We’ve lost momentum whilst others have strengthened and there’s a feeling that this could be Benitez’s last year at the club – meaning there’s a pretty flat and frustrated atmosphere around the place at the minute.
As I write, there are still a few days left to do business, so a few surprise signings could put us in better stead, but we’re not holding our breath.
Benitez will fight until the end and this group of lads will give it their all, but there’s only so much you can achieve when the owners lack of ambition continues to hold us back.