Where do Newcastle need to strengthen this Summer?
I must admit, when I first thought about writing an article on where Newcastle needed to strengthen this summer I had hoped we’d have new owners, a decent transfer kitty and maybe even a well-connected Sporting Director calling the shots. As it stands, we have none of those things, but the Premier League waits for no man (except Richard Masters) and the Newcastle recruitment team have a big task on their hands to try and strengthen our wafer-thin squad with a budget of around £30m. Just like St James’ Park, this current Newcastle squad has been neglected and despite a lick of paint and some fancy murals over the last 18 months, the rest needs a good clean out and some proper maintenance. With a Covid impacted budget and a disinterested owner we must be clever about how we spend our money this summer. In this article I will identify the key areas where we must improve, and the type of player we should be looking for to fill each role.
In priority order:
1. An attacking left-back with pace
I can’t believe Paul Dummett is still our only recognised left back - this seems to have been the case for the last five years. Dummett is strong defensively but is limited going forward and his injury record is poor. He’s missed on average 13 games per season over the last three due to injury so it's a priority to add another left back. I thought we’d finally nailed it with Jetro only for that to be snatched away by a cruel ACL injury he picked up in January. Now in the last 12 months of his contract, the Dutchman could still be an option for Steve Bruce, however, this is the second serious knee injury he’s suffered so it remains to be seen whether he’s the same player when he returns to action in September. Danny Rose is another potentially still on Bruce’s radar but recent comments from the Spurs man suggests he’s thinking about trying to win his place back at Spurs and reports this week claim there’s been no contact from Newcastle regarding the possibility of bringing him back up North.
It was interesting to see us linked with an interest in Antonee Robinson from Wigan before Sheffield United had a bid accepted for him (notably there’s been no confirmation that the deal has been completed yet). Robinson is an attacking full back who possess blistering pace which he uses to get forward and provide overlapping support for his wingers – this is exactly the type of player we need in this position and it’s what Willems did so well for us. Ryan Sessegnon is another who we’ve been credited with having an interest in on a loan basis and this is a move I would love to see Newcastle make – he’s been on the scene a while now (we all remember his brace against us in 2017) but he’s still only 20-years-old and will be desperate to prove himself in the PL. Perhaps a more realistic rumor over recent days has been Faouzi Ghoulam (29) from Napoli. Ghoulam is undeniably a talented left back and would add pace and power to the squad, however, he’s suffered a string of knee injuries over the last couple of seasons and only played 376 minutes last term. At 29, he’s also no spring chicken and if we’re taking risks on players with dodgy knees then I’d much prefer we went back in for Jetro who’s younger and already proven he can adapt well to the PL.
There’s been strong murmurings this week that we should see a left back addition over the coming days, so hopefully we won't have to wait very long to see who it's going to be.
2. A goal scoring striker with good ball retention
With a grand total of 6 league goals scored by our strikers last season we really need to strengthen our forward line. £40m for Joelinton must be the worst value signing of last season and it looks even more ridiculous now given our lack of funds. I’ve lost faith in the Brazilian player ever becoming the out and out striker we need, although I hope for everyone’s sake I’m wrong and he finds some sort of form next season. One bright spot we did have was Dwight Gayle who enjoyed a decent end to the season scoring 4 goals in just under 10 games. Gayle possesses something that Joelinton doesn’t - a striker’s instinct - and he should be kept on for next season in my opinion, even if it means we lose him for a free at the end of his contract next summer. That said, Gayle cannot be relied upon to lead our line due to his poor injury record and limitations to what he brings to the team overall in terms of link-up play.
Andy Carroll may have been our joint top assist maker last season, but he’s only averaged 11.8 games and 0.6 goals over the last 5 seasons – I personally view the big Geordie striker as a bonus player who can change a game but only when fit, which is usually less than a third of a season. Which just leaves Yoshinori Muto – a player who’s only made 25 league appearance across two seasons and scored once in the process. There were calls for Muto to play more during the post-lockdown run of games, but neither Rafa nor Bruce have fancied the Japanese striker since he signed for the club. Surely, he will be one of the players we’ll be looking to get off the books this summer – that’s if we can find someone to take him.
We’ve been linked to a few strikers during recent weeks including Callum Wilson, Patrik Schick and Luka Jović to name a selection. I honestly don’t think Newcastle will be drawn into a bidding war for Callum Wilson, but he would be the obvious choice for Bruce given he’s British and has PL experience. I’m also skeptical that we could land Jović on loan as he’d surely have more appealing options available to him. One surprise name linked over the last week is 26-year-old Colombian international Jhon Córdoba who scored 13 goals for German club Köln last season, despite them finishing just above the relegation zone. I must admit, I knew very little about the Colombian until this week but his stats are actually good and he has a better conversion rate (the percentage of shots that resulted in goals, excluding penalty kicks) than Wilson, Schick and Jović last season.
According to Smarter Scout, Schick and Córdoba both have a similar playing styles which gives us a hint as to what Bruce may be looking for. Schick is the more technically gifted of the two players and is better in the air, whilst Córdoba possess raw pace and power which could be well suited to the Premier League. One of the main frustrations with Joelinton is his hold-up play – he lost the ball more times than any other striker last season in the PL – however, both Schick and Córdoba are 6’2’’ and strong on the ball which is something we’ve missed since Rondon left for China. The ability to keep hold of the ball is a key attribute for any centre forward in our low possession, counter-attacking style of play and, with a market value of just over £10m, Córdoba is half the price of Schick.
3. A box to box midfielder who can carry the ball
Newcastle looked pedestrian in the middle of the park last season and the stats back that up. Per touch of the ball, our centre midfielders made the lowest amount of carries and gained the lowest number of progressive dribbling yards. That’s not to say they’re bad players – we know they have strengths, such as Shelvey’s passing ability – it’s just that we lack anyone in that position who can beat a player, open up the lines and create space for the team. The result of this is we become one dimensional in central areas and teams know how to defend against us, for example they know Shelvey is always looking for a killer pass and they can prepare for this by closing off the passing lanes and blocking our runners.
A true box to box midfielder is hard working, has a great engine, and has good all-round abilities that allows them to be effective at both defending and attacking. These types of players are particularly beneficial for teams who play defensive, counter-attacking football (i.e. Newcastle United). In this mold there are two players I would love to see us sign, one of them being former PSG youth academy product, now at Lille, Boubakary Soumaré (21) who’s been heavily linked with us in the past and is among the top performers across Europe’s big 5 leagues in a range of statistics including dribble success rate, pass completion rate, carries into the final third and pressure events where he regained possession. By all accounts, we’d agreed a fee of £35m for Frenchman in January but Soumaré preferred to finish the season with Lille and now he may be out of our price range, even if his market value has dropped since the start of the year.
The second player we should be looking at is Ibrahim Sangaré (22) of Toulouse who is arguably a better fit for Bruce’s system. The Ivory Coast international has previously been compared to Yaya Toure and Michael Essien in terms of style of play because he’s an excellent ball winner with a turn of pace and is very strong on the ball. Toulouse were relegated from Ligue 1 last season so Sangaré will leave this summer and could even be picked up as a relative bargain if we act quickly (when have we ever done that!?). Transfer Markt currently have him valued at just £8.55m (market value doesn’t necessarily equal transfer fee) which is much more palatable than the £22m Soumaré is currently valued at. Either player would push our midfield on to the next level and give Bruce the legs in midfield he’s been looking for – although I fear he will overlook them in favor of British based players such as the recent link to Tom Davies from Everton.
4. A winger with a good end product
If you’ve read any of my pieces before, you’ll know I was a fan of Valentino Lazaro and I’m disappointed his loan spell didn’t work out – I’m also perplexed why Bruce didn’t play him more, especially when we’d secured our PL status. Lazaro has since been linked with a move to RB Leipzig and I think we’ll live to regret letting him slip through our hands. This leaves us short of talent and experience in the wide areas with only Allan Saint-Maximin, Christian Atsu and Matt Ritchie as recognized PL wingers. Saint-Maximin was one of the standout players in Europe during the final run of Premier League games so his card will be marked by every single opposition team next season. Saint-Maximin is fundamental to our attacking play, not just in his direct goal contribution but also how quickly he can transition the team from defense to attack. All it takes is a dip in form or an injury to the Frenchman and we’d be in trouble, which is why we must invest in another wide player who can help share some of the creative workload.
One winger we’ve been linked with so far this summer is Ryan Fraser who ran down his contract with Bournemouth and is now a free agent. Whilst he didn’t have the best campaign last season there will still be plenty of teams interested in signing the 26-year-old who scored 7 and assisted 14 goals in the 18/19 season. Fraser fits the profile that we’re looking for – he’s the right age, the right price (free) and he’d certainly add some strength to our squad – so it was no surprise to hear The Athletics’ Chris Waugh confirm we’re definitely one of the teams trying to secure his signature. Another winger we’ve also been credited with an interest in is Lyon’s Bertrand Traoré (24), with a possible swap deal including the seemingly out of favor Fabian Schär being mooted. Both players would be decent additions to our squad however, if the takeover had gone through, I’d be screaming for us to sign Ismaïla Sarr but I think he’ll be out of our league as things stand with a host of clubs queuing up to sign him from Watford.
5. An attacking midfielder with an eye for goal
I’m a big fan of Miggy (in fact I love the guy) but he’s our only real attacking midfielder / number 10 option and I’m yet to be convinced he’s clinical enough for us to rely on him completely. In any case, we need more than just Miggy to give us options and squad depth. Bruce did experiment with both Shelvey and S.Longstaff as attacking midfielders last season, with Longstaff playing very well there against Bournemouth before he picked up an injury. However, a good attacking midfielder should have vision, passing ability, a strong shot and solid dribbling skills – neither Longstaff nor Shelvey quite fit the bill and (certainly in Shelvey’s case) are more effective playing deeper.
There was a report the other day claiming Newcastle were one of a host of clubs interested in signing 22-year-old Eberechi Eze from QPR. Eze had a fantastic season just gone where he scored 14 and assisted 8 goals and this is a signing that would make so much sense. This in-depth scouting report on Eze highlights his ability as a playmaker who usually operates on the left wing but drifts inside on to his stronger foot. Eze seems to tick all the boxes and would be a great addition to our squad but the stumbling block (as ever) will be the transfer fee. With Palace already having a £12m bid turned down for the player, how much would Newcastle be willing to pay given they usually prefer to avoid getting into bidding wars? I won’t hold my breath. Todd Cantwell from Norwich would be another good option for us after he enjoyed some eye-catching performances last season despite Norwich’s relegation. Like Eze, Cantwell spends a lot of his time on the left wing but has great movement, makes clever runs into the box and is a cool finisher, as proven by his 6 goals from an xG of 5.8 last season. Currently valued at £18m, Cantwell is probably another we can file under the ‘unlikely’ category unless we manage to shift plenty of deadwood.
With only 4 weeks until the start of the new season, this summer transfer window represents a massive challenge to all teams. Throw in a messy takeover saga (that looks to be ending in Mike Ashley being stuck with a club he doesn’t want), and the financial impacts of Covid, and we’re looking at a potential car crash of a season coming up. The positions I’ve highlighted in this article desperately need strengthened in the next four weeks if we’re to stand any chance of bettering our 13th place finish of last season. I believe this is the bare minimum the squad needs (you could argue we also need a new right back, and a second new striker) but even this will stretch our budget to it’s limits, so we’ll undoubtedly be looking to the loan and free agent market to beef up the squad.
Bruce and his team will be working hard to offload a host of players this summer in a bid to clear space on the wage bill and bolster the transfer kitty. This list of players likely to leave probably includes Yoshinori Muto, Jacob Murphy, Fabian Schär, Christian Atsu, De Andre Yedlin and Rolando Aarons. I think we’d be lucky to get £15m for the lot considering the majority are now in the final year of their contract, but let’s say we did get £15m for these players, this would take our transfer fund up to £45m. Here’s how I would spend it (educated guess as to transfer fees):
· Ryan Sessegnon (£2m loan fee)
· Jhon Cordoba (£11m)
· Ibrahim Sangare (£15m)
· Ryan Fraser (Free)
· Eberechi Eze (£17m)
If we get anywhere near the above players this summer then I’ll be surprised, but very happy. From what we're hearing so far, it looks like Bruce is going to try and sign British based players in the main so let’s see what the next four weeks brings.