Newcastle United didn’t enter the offseason as one of the trendy favorites to be relegated (again) this season. But they are now.
Newcastle lost more than a manager when Rafa Benitez finally took his ball and shuffled off East this summer — they lost what many Toon fans considered the heart and soul of the team. Few managers have been as beloved Tyneside as Benitez. Rafa was appointed to somehow keep Newcastle from being relegated in the spring of 2016, failed (though only barely), and then endeared himself forever to Toon fans by staying at the club and leading them to promotion and the Championship title the following season.
But while Rafa loved the fans, he clashed continuously with owner Mike Ashley, specifically over money and the lack of backing in the transfer window. His patience with Ashley finally ran out this summer as Rafa left Toon to manage Dalian Yifang in the Chinese Super League. The fans, nursing broken hearts, nearly revolted with many fans calling for a club boycott and significant season tickets remaining unsold this season.
Ashley replaced Rafa with Steve Bruce, a Newcastle fan and a journeyman manager who hasn’t been seen in the Premier League in
eight four years; #BruceOut began trending on Twitter the same day as his appointment. Bruce is a pragmatist, but hardly an inspiring tactician in the way Benitez was, though most Newcastle supporters seem at least willing to give him a chance. How MUCH of a chance remains to be seen.
Strangely, the appointment of Bruce has also had the side effect of loosening Ashley’s notoriously tight purse strings. While Ayoze Perez and Joselu departed along with 32-year old Mohamed Diame, Newcastle spent nearly £60m this summer, including a club record £39m for Hoffenheim forward Joelinton, and another £16m for Nice winger Allan Saint-Maximin. They join the under-appreciated Miguel Almiron in what should be an intriguing offense.
But it hasn’t been. Through two games, Newcastle are 18th in xG, and 16th in xGA. They looked listless and outmatched in their opening losses to Arsenal and fellow promoted side Norwich. With a suspect defense, a new manager, and a disaffected fan base, Newcastle already look like a club lost at sea. It’s nothing a few wins can’t fix, but with their next three matches being at Tottenham Hotspur, home to Watford, and at Liverpool, there’s a distinct chance Toon could be winless in their opening five matches. That could set the tone for a season that could result in another improbable drop to the second division, and another inevitable fire sale. If that happens, it’s worth asking if Mike Ashley can hold against what would be yet another tidal wave of supporter pressure to cut his losses and finally sell the club.
How will Tottenham Hotspur line up against Newcastle?
Call him the prodigal Son — Heung-Min is back for Tottenham after missing the first two matches of the season to suspension, a three match ban that carried over from his uncharacteristic straight red card against Bournemouth at the end of last season. Spurs have missed his directness and scoring ability in the opening two games of this season, particularly last week at Manchester City.
But that being said, the starting lineup feels pretty firm at the moment. And if you believe, like I do, that Sonny is in line to jump straight back in the starting 11, then someone is going to have to be left out. But who? Moussa Sissoko is the obvious choice, but Pochettino has relied on the Frenchman both for verve in the midfield and also his defensive help behind Kyle Walker-Peters this season. It seems ludicrous to think that Harry Winks, Christian Eriksen, or Tanguy Ndombele would make way.
That leaves Erik Lamela, and the consequence of that decision likely means that, if Sonny starts, Lucas Moura will not. Or vice versa — after Lucas’ dramatic entrance against City on Saturday, would anyone be shocked if Lucas earned a place in the starting 11?
That’s ultimately where I come down. As good as Sonny is, Lucas has the hot hand and my guess is that he gets the start against Toon, with Son as an impact sub off the bench. The rest of the lineup picks itself — a midfield of Winks, Sissoko, Ndombele and Eriksen, Walker-Peters and Rose at fullback (though perhaps one of Aurier and Davies could be ready to rotate in). I will continue to pick Jan Vertonghen to start until he actually does.
Giovani Lo Celso and Sonny will get minutes in reserve, hopefully when Spurs are already up 3-0. Maybe Lamela, if the match calls for a little violence. This has the feel of an easy match, but we said that about Aston Villa, too. Don’t count your magpies before they’re dead.
That’s my predicted Tottenham Hotspur lineup for Sunday’s match against Newcastle. What’s yours?