Every year in the Premier League, there are teams that overachieve, teams that underachieve, and teams that finish just about where they should. After getting promoted in 2010, finishing mid-table in 2010-11, Newcastle spent the majority of the 2011-12 season in a Champions League qualifying position. While many fans and pundits alike believed that Newcastle would have another strong season last year, where they would continue to contend for European qualification, a mix of injuries, bad form, and an increase in games resulted in a terrible season. However, I believe we simply saw Newcastle's best (5th place in 2012), and their worst (16th place in 2013). In the upcoming 2013-14 season, they, as all teams eventually do, will regress back towards their mean, and finish in 11th place.
Newcastle United F.C.- A Brief History:
While Newcastle might be better known for being the home of the British Jersey Shore (warning: this video link might include some scarring images), the football team has been around for more than a century. Newcastle United was founded in 1892, and has been playing in the same stadium, St. James Park, ever since. The Toon joined the Football League the next year, and had a very successful spell basically right off the bat, winning an FA Cup and three League Championships before 1910. After a brief and slight decrease in play, Newcastle returned to prominence in the 1920's, winning the FA Cup in 1924 and 1932, and winning the league for the fourth (and most recent) time in 1927. However, World War II halted the Toon's progress, as many of the players from the Toon Army began to fight for the real army. Post-World War II, Newcastle experienced a brief period of success, winning three out of five FA Cups from 1951 to 1955. However, their victory in 1955 is unfortunately their last major title (1977 League Cup excluded), and they have not been considered an elite football club for quite some time. However, they have managed an impressive run of consistency in the Premier League, taking part in every season except for 2 since its creation in 1992. More recently, Newcastle has experienced great ups-and-downs, from their promotion in 2010 and 5th place finish in 2012, to their relegation-threatened season last year, in 2013. Newcastle has also recently decided to become an affiliate of the France National Team (not officially, but basically), and currently have 12 French players on the squad (read HERE (for more ridiculousness). Alan Pardew will manage the team for his third full season this year, as they look to rebound, and return to the top half of the table.
Newcastle had a really difficult 2012-13 season. 10 games into the season, they were performing adequately, and entered a relatively easy part of their season (6 straight games vs. not top-7 teams) sitting in 10th place. However, a heartbreaking loss to West Ham in St. James Park in which former Newcastle skipper scored the winner sent Newcastle spiraling down the table. Three games later, the Toon Army allowed two goals in the last 10 minutes of the game to fall to Stoke 2-1. Overall, during a 12 game stretch from November to January, the Toon lost 9 matches, and sunk all the way from 10th to 16th place. Following a tumultuous transfer window in which they Toon lost Demba Ba to 3rd place Chelsea, but managed to buy FIVE Frenchman, many pundits picked Newcastle to go down- after all, how could they survive without their ace striker Ba, who scored 13 goals in the first half of the season. However, a thrilling 3-2 win over Chelsea on February 2nd saved Newcastle's season. After going down 2-1 in the second half, new signing Moussa Sissoko bagged a brace, including a 90th minute winner, giving the Toon a huge three points in one of the most exciting matches of the season. While Newcastle continued to struggle, winning only 4 of their last 13 games, they did just enough to avoid relegation and finish in 16th place. A 2-1 win vs. QPR in the second-to-last week of the season confirmed that Newcastle would be staying up. In the various cups, Newcastle did not fair very well, either. They were unlucky in the League Cup, and went out 2-1 after drawing Manchester United in their first game of the tournament. However, they must be disappointed with their 2-0 loss to Brighton Hove & Albion in the first round of the FA Cup. As 5th place finishers in 2011-12, Newcastle got to participate in the Europa League. They reached the knockout round after coming in second in Group D, and actually reached the quarterfinals of the tournament, defeating Metalist Kharviv and Russian giants Anzhi Makhachkala along the way. However, they eventually fell to SL Benfica in the quarters.
Summer Transfer Dealings:
For Newcastle's sake, I bet they wish I included the winter transfer window in this passage and well, I'm a nice guy... so I guess I'll give it a mention. In January, as previously mentioned, Newcastle acquired five Frenchman- right back Matheiu Debuchy, midfielder Moussa Sissoko, center back Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, forward Yoan Gouffran, and outside back Massadio Haidara. Those players, especially the first three, made significant impacts in saving Newcastle from relegation. However, they have had a much tougher time this summer. Newcastle has been linked with it seems like hundreds of targets over the last month+, from Stewart Downing, to Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang, to Oscar Cardozo. However, until the recent loan signing of Loic Remy, they had signed absolutely no one. The acquisition of Remy, on loan from QPR, is a good one, and he will do well to combine with incumbent striker Papiss Demba Cisse to form a strong front line (of French speaking players). While there are continued rumors of the arrival of another striker, possibly Darren Bent of Bafatembi Gomis, Newcastle has done nothing to address a leaky defense that allowed 68 goals last season, almost half a goal per game more than in 2011-12 (51 goals allowed). Additionally, the midfield needs work. While Hatem Ben Arfa has been brilliant at times, he lacks consistency and has injury troubles, and Yohan Cabaye looks like he might be on the way out (possibly to Manchester United). Pardew needs to bring in some reinforcements or Newcastle could be in some more trouble.
Why will they finish upper mid-table?
Well, the easiest answer to this question is that they did 2 years ago with essentially the same team. If Cisse can find his scoring touch, and Remy continues to perform, Newcastle will potentially have an elite front two. If they sign another striker, they will have almost an embarrassment of riches, and Pardew will get the luxury of being able to play the hot hand (or foot... or head). Cabaye should have a much-improved season, as should Ben Arfa, who I believe is still one of the scarier players in the EPL. They will combine with Sissoko and Cheik Tiote to create one of the quieter yet more effective midfields in the league. Yanga-Mbiwa and Debuchy are solid players, and should be better in their first full season with the team. Coloccini seems to have gotten over his homesickness (don't get me started on how ridiculous it is to me that grown men footballers get homesick on such a consistent basis), and should be better. Quite simply, if everyone plays as they should, Newcastle has the quality to finish in the top half, and contend for a Europa League spot, as they did a year ago. Additionally, they won't participate in the Europa League this season, which means two things; 1, they weren't very good last year; and 2, they should be more rested for other competitions this season. I expect a much better performance in this coming season.
Why will they be in a relegation battle?
It's easy to slip into a relegation battle. A few bad months, bad bounces, unfortunate losses, and you find yourself in 16th place. Just ask Newcastle. Cabaye needs to rediscover his form (if he stays at the club), and the strikers need to find a way to work together. The Toon have invested a ton in their striking unit, and might be about to invest even more- they need to perform with more than one of them on the pitch at once. The midfield should be solid, but the back four is a concern. 22 year-old David Santon was adequate at times last season, and has room to grow, but he did struggle mightily against faster players (Theo Walcott, Callum Mcmanaman, etc.). If Coloccini does not return to form, Newcastle has a big problem. Steven and Ryan Taylor are getting up there in age, and quite simply aren't good enough to start for this team. We'll see if Pardew can acquire another player. Otherwise, Newcastle is a few injuries/bad performances away from another very difficult season.
Key player- Papiss Demba Cisse:
How can a guy who can do this also do this? Cisse scored only 8 goals last season, despite taking 86 shots, and playing striker for most of the second half of the season, and starting 35 games. He looked out of place at times. Sometimes he was in the right place, but just couldn't finish the shot. Cisse needs to be the player who scored 13 goals in 14 games in the second half of the 2011-12 season, or even the guy who scored 37 in 65 games for FC Freiburg over two and a half seasons. He can't be the guy who scored 8 goals in 35 games playing centre forward for a team with high aspirations. Cisse had a lot of problems playing with Demba Ba last season. If he can't workout how to play with Loic Remy (and possibly Gomis or Bent), Newcastle might be in serious trouble.
One to watch for- Gael Bigirimana:
The nineteen-year-old midfielder debuted for Newcastle last season, and while he struggled at time, it was easy to see his potential. He played mostly CDM for the Toon last season, but with goals like this, and the potential departure of Yohan Cabaye, I wouldn't be surprised to see him play a bit higher up this year. Bigirimana is blessed with great pace and agility, and is already a solid passer of the ball. Once he plays a bit more at the senior level and adjusts to the pace of the game, he could be a very good player. While it might be hard for him to break through a crowded midfield, Alan Pardew is not afraid to play youth- he might get his chance.
Key stat: 66%
Newcastle allowed 66% of their goals (45/68) last season in the second half of games. It makes sense that as players get more tired in the second half of matches, the field will open up a bit. Throughout the league, about 55% of goals were scored in the second half- in fact; Newcastle scored exactly 55% of their goals after the break, 25/45, showing that it was not a huge change in the pace of play that resulted in the difference. The Toon were outscored by 3 goals before the break, and 20 goals after. They need to focus more, and put together 90 good minutes at a time in order to improve on their 16th place finish last season.
Odds and Prediction:
Sky Sports gives Newcastle 11:8 odds (42%) to finish in the top half, and a 8:15 (65%) chance of finishing in the bottom half. I think Newcastle will do a bit better than Sky does- I'm considering taking the top-half bet- although I'm not confident either way. They'll finish somewhere around the middle, probably between 8th and 14th. My Prediction: 11th place, 44 points.
Europa League Qualification- 8%
Champions League Qualification- 0%
Come back tonight to see my opinion on homesick players, and the modern footballer.
Thanks for reading, and I appreciate any feedback, comments, or suggestions you have for me. Come back tomorrow, August 8th, to see my prediction for the 10th place team (one of my favorites).