Progress report for Newcastle United’s first four games Premier League games

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It was during a gruelling 2014-15 season that very nearly saw Newcastle United fall ignominiously through the Premier League trapdoor when already wafer-thin expectations and patience amongst the long-suffering Toon Army at St James’ Park with the hierarchy finally snapped. The, frankly, dull and uninspiring fayre served up by what seemed to be an, at times, simply disinterested squad played out to a background of chronic underspending, fan protest and deafening silence from any of the boardroom bigwigs. That was until owner Mike Ashley made the surprising and uncharacteristic decision to finally face the media on the final day of the season and promise more investment in the playing squad and a renewed interest in bringing European soccer to Tyneside.

At a glance so far, one would struggle to see how things have massively improved and it’s fair to say, at best, 2015-16 has been a proverbial mixed bag for the Magpies. On one hand, the flair that many expected from a squad that includes new signings Gigi Wijnaldum, Florian Thauvin and Aleksandar Mitrovic added to a stable of Siem de Jong, Papiss Cisse and Moussa Sissoko simply hasn’t materialised. Newcastle are already seriously struggling to get on the scoresheet, as a record of precisely no goals since the opening day starkly shows. They lie in 19th position, and the season already potentially has the faint whiff of failure and underachievement about it, but there are a few encouraging signs.

Ashley has spent big this season, not many would argue that point, and the business has been impressive. To the aforementioned trio, United have also added a potentially excellent centre back in Chancel Mbemba, like Mitrovic, from Anderlecht – he has added much needed steel to a porous back-line – never was this more evident than in their 0-0 draw with Manchester United when the entire defence put in a Herculean effort to frustrate their opponents. The problems at the back from last season seem to have been remedied somewhat, which is frustrating considering their profligacy up-front. If Newcastle can marry up their new-found bite and backbone with a few goals, there’ll certainly be more to cheer in the Gallowgate End.

Wijnaldum, a signing from PSV, has impressed so far with his willingness to get forward, and a range of quick passing, control and pace means he will add his fair share of goals and assists to the cause. His goal against Southampton on the opening day in a 2-2 draw was clear evidence of what he’s capable of. The jury is still, however, very much out on Thauvin and Mitrovic. Mitrovic’s clumsy sending-off in the 1-0 defeat to Arsenal before the international break displayed a naivety and rashness that the, admittedly, talented 20-year-old striker possesses. Again, it’s hard to argue the point that Newcastle would have come away with something against the Gunners given another superb effort at the back. He will need to learn from it very quickly if he is to have any sort of impact. A bustling, line-leading display against Manchester United, where he saw a header cannon off the woodwork, is all the evidence one needs to see that he can make the right noises. Bought from Marseille in a deal that saw flop Remy Cabella move in the opposite direction, Florian Thauvin has a Pandora’s box full of tricks, pace and nous, and has the potential to wreak havoc on the league’s full-backs. This will be magnified even more if he finds himself in enough space as his opposite number forays forward. So far though, he’s looked decidedly average and struggled somewhat with the leap up from Ligue 1. Like Mitrovic, he will have to learn very quickly that the Premier League is an unforgiving arena.

The feeling amongst many fans is that new boss Steve McClaren is a welcome upgrade in the hot-seat and there seems to be a common consensus that the club is at least beginning to be steered in the right direction. The alarm bells have not begun to ring as of yet on the pitch, Newcastle have faced an unforgiving set of fixtures, added to the ties against United and Arsenal, they have also tackled an exciting and vibrant Swansea side that brushed them aside 2-0 in another game they were down to 10 men thanks to Daryl Janmaat’s sending off. Their two points probably don’t reflect fairly on them so far, however things have to markedly improve in a number of areas if they are to avoid a repeat of last season’s debacle.

Best Starting XI: Krul, Janmaat, Mbemba, Coloccini, Haidara, Colback, Tiote, Sissoko, Thauvin, Wijnaldum, Mitrovic.

Best Performer: Georginio Wijnaldum

Most Improved Player: Gabriel Obertan

Injury News: Emmanuel Riviere has a knee injury, whilst Paul Dummett is carrying a hamstring injury.

Best business completed in transfer window: Chancel Mbemba. £8 million from Anderlecht.

Rating the manager: C. It’s so far, so average for the former England manager at St James’ Park. McClaren is widely regarded as a superb training ground coach and, as a result, there seems to be a massive improvement in the morale of the squad generally. Newcastle United players care about the shirt again, which fans have been vocal about in recent seasons. He has also begun to implement a new philosophy on the pitch, which unfortunately hasn’t reaped the dividends he would have hoped. Sadly, McClaren’s infamous spell as national team manager means he is under a fierce media gaze, the knives will be out for him in a matter of weeks if fortunes don’t improve. When you add this to a feverish Geordie support, he is perhaps under the biggest spotlight in the country at the moment. It’s hard to sympathise with or defend him when Newcastle lie in 19th with a toothless attack. The next two games, against West Ham United and Watford need to return a minimum of four points. Should they get them, it will give him some breathing room.

Weaknesses: Goals, or lack of them! Newcastle are in desperate need of a few to inject some life into the next few weeks. Mitrovic being banned for three games won’t help matters.

Newcastle’s starting XI is competitive and is more than capable of matching anybody on their day, however they lack depth in some areas. There is still a lot of deadwood at the club and players such as Vurnon Anita, Mike Williamson, Paul Dummett, Gabriel Obertan (though he has looked much better at times so far) and Yoann Gouffran don’t really cut it at this level. If and when injuries take their toll, they could struggle badly.

Forecast for remainder of season: Anything will be an improvement on last season. If they stay injury free and find their shooting boots, Newcastle will be comfortably in around 12-13th by the end of the season. A couple of signings to augment what they have in January will be a welcome boost.

Overall rating: 2.5 out of 5.

 

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