The fate each season of Newcastle United has been by a distance the most difficult to predict Premier League history. While most teams tend to float around the same part of the table for a few years at least, the Magpies have barely established any degree of consistency in their position over the past 21 years. They sandwiched two 2nd-placed finishes in 1996 and 1997 with finishes in 6th and 13th in 1995 and 1998, respectively; they broke into the top 4 in 2002 after 4 years in mid-table; they were relegated in 2009 and then finished 5th in only their second season back in the top flight. After two years of mediocrity, this summer was hugely important to the St James' Park.
A year ago year they had meandered through the off-season with Joe Kinnear in charge of bringing in reinforcements. The former Newcastle and Wimbledon manager's eight month stint as Director of Football ended in embarrassment and failure, though, Kinnear having had all too many an infamous mishap in the media, having brought in only two players - both strikers, both on loan deals - and having sold the club's star player, Yohan Cabaye, to PSG without lining up a replacement.
A club of Newcastle's size and stature cannot be content with merely managing to finish in the top half, and Mike Ashley too seems to be convinced that significant investment was needed this summer in order for his club to build on last season's 10th-placed finish, rather than again risk sliding the wrong way down the table. They have therefore followed up an 18-month period in which only loan signings Loïc Remy and Luuk de Jong came in by signing no fewer than 6 players permanently (plus one on loan) this summer, with more expected to follow in the coming days.
As we saw with Tottenham last summer, buying in bulk doesn't necessarily work to replace star players. Cabaye (7.46) and Remy (7.14) were the north-east club's first- and third-highest rated players in the Premier League last season, having scored 21 of their 43 goals (48.8%) between them. Mathieu Debuchy, Newcastle's second-best player last season (7.42) and the Premier League's highest rated right-back, has also now departed so, given previous failures and uninspiring periods lacking investment, the importance of the business they conduct in this transfer window has become even more pronounced.
So, have Newcastle exorcised their demons sufficiently that they are able to challenge once again this season, and maybe even impact on a top 7 that looks so tough to crack at present?
In terms of replacing the lost players, they have done a decent job. Scoring goals without Remy was a real problem last season, and it is hoped that Siem de Jong, who netted 7 times in 19 Eredivisie appearances last season and has a few Champions League goals to his name, can ease that worry. Averaging 2.9 shots per game and just 0.7 key passes, he isn't quite as creative as one might expect of a player who is comfortable both in central midfield or up front, though that reflects what manager Alan Pardew was looking for in the Dutchman.
Ayoze Perez has too been brought in to add to the team's attacking reserves, after he hit 16 goals in 33 Liga Adelante appearances last season, while Emmanuel Rivière has arrived at the Sports Direct Arena having netted 10 Ligue 1 goals from just 51 shots for Monaco. Facundo Ferreyra, too, joined this week - albeit on loan - adding yet another striker to the squad, though with just 3 goals in 12 matches in the Ukranian top tier this season, it remains to be seen whether he will find the step up too great.
That is now four strikers that have been brought in to replace Remy. Four strikers who need to score 14 Premier League goals just to match Remy's return. They certainly have that in them, but it is also easier said than done. The crop of players 7 brought in to replace Gareth Bale at Tottenham, all from outside the Premier League, as is the case at Newcastle (bar Jack Colback who is unlikely to score too many), managed 1 fewer goal combined than Bale did in his final season. The bigger issue, however, is whether Rémy Cabella - brought in from Montpellier - can alone replace the creativity lacking in the team since Cabaye left.
Moussa Sissoko provides some drive and cutting edge from central midfield, averaging the most key passes per game at Newcastle last season (2.2), but he is rather more impressive in terms of his athleticism than the intelligence of his passing to unlock opposition steadfast defences. Cabella, though, possessing strengths including key passes, through ball, crossing, passing and taking set-pieces - amongst others, incredibly - is clearly a more technically adept midfield option.
He averaged 2.2 key passes per game in the French top flight last season and found a teammate with 9 of his 14 attempted through balls, so it is hoped he can provide the chances for Pardew's new-look strikeforce to fire. 5 assists in 37 appearances last season is not an overly impressive return, but he did hit 14 goals from midfield last season, and surrounded by the strength in depth Newcastle now have up front, he could well improve in terms of assists made on Tyneside.
Then there is Daryl Janmaat, brought in at right-back to replace the Arsenal-bound Debuchy. The Dutchman played a significant role in Netherlands' progression to the semi-final of the World Cup this summer, starting all three of their group games as they romped to 9 points with surprising ease. Janmaat made a tackle every 21.5 minutes in Brazil which, of players to make 5 or more appearances, was the second-best rate (behind Costa Rica's Cristian Gamboa), while his 36.5 minutes per interception was the fourth-most frequent at the tournament. Also providing 2 assists, he showed that he is adept on both the front and the back foot. He looks like he could be the perfect player to fill the void that Debuchy left.
And so, after stagnation threatened to overcome the Magpies with a third transfer window of watching the world pass them by, Ashley and Pardew - without Joe Kinnear involved - have taken action. The problem may be that the vast changes at St James' Park will be too great to adapt to in time for the new season but the quality brought in gives them a fighting chance. Breaking into the top 7 may be beyond Newcastle United, but improving on last season and moving up the Premier League certainly isn't. Plenty of options and resultant inconsistency on the field may produce a little bit of much needed consistency and stability in their position in the Premier League.
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