The 2015-16 Season
As Jeff Bridges' Rooster Cogburn said in the 2010 Coen Brothers remake of True Grit, seconds after his planned ambush went awry and ended with him shooting the man he was aiming to protect, while losing the men he planned to arrest: "… that didn’t pan out."
Admittedly, starting a Premier League campaign with Steve McClaren in charge is always a risky adventure, and running your football club like the football equivalent of a discount sporting goods warehouse is an even riskier one. Despite lavish expenditure throughout the season - £14.5m on Georginio Wijnaldum, £13m on Aleksandar Mitrović, £12m each on Florian Thauvin and Jonjo Shelvey and a fraction more for Andros Townsend – Newcastle have once again lurched from one embarrassing pratfall to another, generally playing like a directionless set of dimwits and getting thumped by other teams who actually know what they’re doing. Injuries to key players haven’t helped, but that hardly serves as an excuse.
Their 5-1 defeat away to goal-shy Crystal Palace, managed by former Magpies boss Alan Pardew, was arguably the worst performance by any Premier League team this season – Aston Villa included. The increasingly unemployable McClaren was kept on for far too long, and not even the marquee appointment of Rafa Benítez was enough to dig them out of the mess they made for themselves, and their relegation was confirmed after Sunderland beat Everton 3-0 on Wednesday night.
The Summer Ahead
…is going to be extremely painful.
There are lots of players in the squad who simply won’t want to play in the Championship – as current centre-back and future captain Jamaal Lascelles was overheard to furiously bellow while leaving the pitch during one game: "no-one gives a f**k!"
That’s not quite true: as well as Lascelles, there are players like Mitrović, Townsend and Shelvey who really do give a f**k. However, it is undeniably true that there are plenty at the club who have long since given up caring or trying – looking at you, Messrs Sissoko, Cissé, Taylor and Tioté – and the fact that "captain" Fabricio Coloccini was allowed to continue playing at 50% for the vast majority of the season without getting dropped was beyond insulting to the fanbase.
Life in the Championship is not fun and, as trite as it sounds, if one player on the pitch doesn’t give a f**k, it’s next-to-impossible to get through the 46 games and win promotion. That said, with the right management in place for next season and with the right ins and outs, Newcastle should be considered obvious favourites to win the division at the first attempt.
Rafa Benítez is the manager, so you know exactly what you’re getting: a compact 4-2-3-1 with functional full-backs, a defensive double-pivot and physical, hard-working and efficient players rather than flair options in attacking positions. The key to Benítez’s success has always been his knack of finding the right balance in a team, and the stick that’s always been used to beat him with has always been that if he doesn’t find that balance, the football becomes stodgy, overly cautious and deathly dull.
Newcastle have kept three clean sheets in their last five, winning two and drawing another – partly due to a favourable fixture list – but it does seem to be the case that Benítez is getting the balance right again at Newcastle. It’s just a shame that it’s all happening too late to save them.
Nice stadium, I guess. Passionate support too.
Anyone? Anything else? No? Okay, let’s move on.
They’ve been rubbish at both ends for the entire season, and there’s almost no escaping the drop when committing such a cardinal sin. In terms of attacking output, their 359 total shots is the second lowest figure in the league, while 134 shots on target and 235 shots from within the box are middling figures. At the other end, 523 shots conceded is the league’s second highest figure, while 171 shots on target conceded is the third highest figure and 304 shots allowed from within the box is the highest. You just can’t get that badly outshot for an entire season and not face a struggle to stay up.
Comical defending has long been a feature of Newcastle teams – at least partly because they keep putting the same comical defenders on the pitch – but there was never such a sense of apathy from the players before this season. As Lascelles correctly said, too many simply don’t care and the ones that do generally aren’t good enough. It’s been another cautionary tale of poor recruitment strategies, horrific decision-making at senior levels and the loss of identity and motivation at lower levels due to the transparent "it’s all about the money" thought processes of those at the top.
Put simply: score the first goal and you’ll probably win, and Newcastle will give you as many chances as you need to score that first goal.
Benítez has favoured a settled starting XI since coming in, picking players who suit his system rather than finding a system to suit his players. This has meant a rather embarrassing fall from grace for Shelvey, who quickly became a key player under McClaren and was even handed the captain’s armband at one point, but who now sits on the bench every week.
Spurs just have to win, right? 2-0.