Willock signing offers Newcastle fans a rare taste of optimism

On March 20, Newcastle United fell to 17th place after a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Brighton. Their remaining nine games featured five games against teams in the hunt for European competition. A relegation battle seemed all but certain for the Magpies. Fast forward to the end of the 2020/21 season, Newcastle United sat in a comfortable 12th position in the table, 13 points clear of the drop. How did NUFC get there, and what can this tell us about the 2021-22 season?

Strong base to build from

There are two major causes for Newcastle’s turnaround. The first was personnel. After lengthy absences, their two best offensive players returned – forward Callum Wilson and midfielder Allan Saint-Maximin. Without them, they struggled mightily to score goals. In fact, the duo combined for 15 goals and nine assists. The other cause was a change of formation. Manager Steve Bruce and his chief assistant Graeme Jones switched to a new system with three central defenders and wing players Jacob Murphy and Matt Ritchie playing as wingbacks. After only scoring three goals in their previous six matches ending in the Brighton debacle, they scored seven in three, and were only held goalless by Arsenal.

Still, the hero of the turnaround was Joe Willock. The Arsenal loanee scored seven times in the last nine fixtures, including match winners against West Ham, Sheffield United and Fulham. Additionally, Willock tallied and a 95th-minute equalizer at Liverpool. Any Newcastle season preview will feature discussion on Willock due to the fact he is an integral catalyst for what they did to close the season.

Willock headlines transfer window

Newcastle recognized the impact Willock brought to St. James’ Park and made the move to bring him back. Multiple outlets report that Newcastle paid £22 million plus ad-ons for the Arsenal midfielder. Willock, although just a 21-year-old Englishman, has a chance to break a club-record belonging to Alan Shearer. Willock scored in his last six Newcastle appearances, meaning if he scores in his next game for the Magpies, the club record is his.

As is often the case over the summer transfer windows, Newcastle let several players leave. Most notable of those include Andy Carroll, Florian Lejeune, Christian Atsu and Yoshinori Muto. However, Newcastle did not bring in many players, with goalkeeper Freddie Woodman likely the only transfer in to receive playing time outside of Willock. Woodman is presumed to be the starter in the season opener against West Ham United.

Time for cautious optimism?

So, what can be expected? Are there reasons for optimism? Not if you believe current polls that have Newcastle United supporters as the least-optimistic fan base in the Premier League. While the Newcastle season preview looked bleak, much of that disdain came from losing their talisman in Willock.  With the midfielder back in the black and white stripes, the team that finished on a flourish last season is largely unchanged. They have an extra player available now as well in defensive midfielder Isaac Hayden. The main problem is if Wilson and Saint-Maximin miss significant time again, the side will struggle mightily to score. Depth is something less-wealthy clubs struggle with.

There’s also the small matter of the potential sale of the club to the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia. If the long-awaited sale finally is approved, Newcastle immediately become a club that will attempt to compete directly with the big clubs who seem to be preventing the transaction from completing.

Nevertheless, there is reason for optimism for Newcastle United fans entering this season.

Newcastle season preview lineup

If all remains consistent throughout the season in regards to injuries, expect Newcastle starting XI to be fairly consistent.

Potential lineup for Newcastle’s season-opener against West Ham United. (Created on Chosen11.com)

Outside of the return of Willock, Newcastle’s additions have been subpar. While the potential starting XI can play to the standard they set at the end of last season, they will not start the same players every game.

There is some cover in midfield, with the Longstaff brothers, Ryan Fraser and Jeff Hendrick available. Javier Manquillo and Jamal Lewis are cover for the wingbacks, and Emil Krafth and Paul Dummett can play both central defense and as fullbacks. Ciaran Clark played well when Lascelles was injured last season. Up front there are only Dwight Gayle and Joelinton, who have not proven to be consistent scorers at this level. Bruce may also opt to start Joelinton on the wing instead of Almiron.

Still seeking players

It’s probably not a relegation side, but it’s pretty thin on top-level talent. And every other team – including the three promoted clubs – have brought in reinforcements.

There are still things to be decided. Bruce has said they are trying to bring a few players in before the season begins this weekend. The club has enough to stay up as long as the key players stay healthy; if they don’t, it will be another season looking down rather than up.

Learn more about how to watch Newcastle and the 2021-22 Premier League season.

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