With the Premier League’s new season finally upon us after the quietest transfer window I can ever recall, now could be the time to think about who might be the competition for Newcastle in the months ahead. Which sides do they need to watch out for?
Newcastle’s immediate rivals have fluctuated wildly over the years. In 2008/09 they ended up in direct competition with Hull and Middlesbrough. In the mid-late 90s it was Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool. Bobby Robson’s young Champions League team was at various times challenging Leeds, Chelsea & Villa for one of those spots in Europe’s top competition. The obvious conclusion to draw is that your rivals are determined by how good, or poor, you and they both are. There’s more to it than mere talent however. Squad size, squad balance, aims, competitions both entered and taken seriously all have an effect on how well you do and who you’re challenging.
So where are Newcastle aiming this season? Last season’s success was all the more joyful in its unexpectedness. Following on from a solid return to the top division and a summer of turmoil with top players agitating for moves, the transfer window ended in a situation of near panic as the club failed to sign the striker many felt was needed. Confidence was still high after some signings which were recognisably shrewd at the time, and which proved to be exactly that. Even so, no-one foresaw a run for Europe which could have ended in Champions League qualification on the season’s final day. Super Sunday? It turned into Wanderlust Weekend for Newcastle. At the start of that season their rivals would have been West Brom, Sunderland, Stoke and Villa as consolidation was sought. By its end Chelsea & Tottenham were in their sights and Liverpool had been outstripped many games previously.
Is that the aim again? Obviously they’re trying to finish as high up the table as they possibly can, so in one sense of course it is, they want to win the League, Cups, Crufts and plant the black & white flag on Mars if possible. Pragmatism and the likelihood of achieving those things temper dreams into what their aims actually are. It’ll be more difficult this year to achieve the same things. Other teams will see them as more of a threat and more of a scalp and approach games with an entirely different mindset to last season. There will be more games to play. If they take all competitions seriously they might have a lot more games to play. That will inevitably impinge on the club’s ability to get their best side on the pitch. The squad isn’t appreciably bigger than last season, though they are stronger in central defence with the return of Steven Taylor and the recruitment of Curtis Good. In midfield, the loss of Guthrie & Smith should be more than balanced out by the arrivals of Anita, the development signings of Bigimirana and Amalfitano, and the return from long-term injury of Sylvain Marveaux. In addition, fringe players are a year more experienced and should be pushing harder for a break this term. Up front Best and Lovenkrands have left, both having put in an appreciable number of games last time out. Only 3 front-line strikers remain, and that’s not enough to run a campaign on 4 fronts. Perhaps Adam Campbell can step up when required, but all the same, though the quality has improved from the start of last season, the numbers have not. There’s time yet in the transfer window for that to change, but it looks as if some youngsters will be getting a lot more pitch time unless Newcastle go out of cup competitions very early.
Of the sides who finished around Newcastle last season, not all have improved. At the top Manchester United have to be stronger for the big-money purchases of van Persie and Shinji Kagawa from Dortmund, though their deficiencies in the centre of midfield have still not been addressed. How long can they rely on Giggs and Scholes in important games? The underrated Darren Fletcher played in a friendly the other week, should he return properly he would make a big difference. Manchester City are the same but for their recruitment of Jack Rodwell, who I can’t see as a regular yet. They remain formidable though, and will be difficult to beat. Arsenal have offset the loss of van Persie by gaining Giroud from Montpellier and Lukas Podolski. The new recruits are quality performers but van Persie is a tough act to follow and the difference last season between Arsenal qualifying for the Champions League and not making Europe at all. They need to be very successful for Arsenal to maintain their position. Spurs have lost their manager and at the time of writing only have 2 front-line forwards, only one of whom, Jermain Defoe, is truly top class. I fully expect Villas-Boas to be a success but he will want to bring in his own players and it will take time for him to be happy with his squad and the style of play. Chelsea again have made big-money signings but look light up front with only Torres and Sturridge currently on the books. Liverpool have made a massive gamble in bringing in the relatively untried Brendan Rodgers as manager and the close-season signings of Borini and Allen aren’t impressive enough to think they will have a much better season than last. Their problem last season was being unable to translate pressure into goals and anyone who saw Rodgers’ Swansea last year will wonder if he has the answer to that.
Among those sides which finished around Newcastle last season then, there are opportunities to catch or pull away from them should they not address their problems. Newcastle’s main problem will be the inability to play their best side as often as last season. With that in mind, while there’s no reason Newcastle shouldn’t challenge the sides near them in the league in last season’s final table, and while those sides haven’t necessarily improved themselves, the challenge this year may be to scrape a Europa League place rather than have one tied up early ang for Champions League as happened last season. Newcastle have qualified for Europe a year early if their plan was for steady progression, to achieve it again would be a major success with all the new challenges they have to face. It’s a measure of how far they’ve come that Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal are the competition as we start the season, with Liverpool playing catch up. Should those clubs continue to be the competition for Newcastle, then that is success in itself.