10 Keys to a Successful Season at Newcastle United

Words by Aziz Khalil – follow him on Twitter @azizk47

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As Steve McClaren was introduced at St. James Park, he declared that a top 8 finish was the goal for the upcoming season. This seemed like an incredible feat for a team that merely staved off relegation in the previous season; it wasn’t until the last game of the year where they secured safety in the PL. Fast forward 3 months, a brand new coaching staff, new philosophy and culture at Newcastle United and with it comes the fresh perspective of positivity; a word that has become awfully foreign in the North-East of England.

A top 8 finish may seem a tad unrealistic with the current squad. The evident concern is that this roster has a cluster of players at every position but there’s also an obvious lack of talent. A team with quantity at most positions, but not quality. A new coaching staff will bring a fresh perspective, give a handful of players a new start and an altered culture to the club. Let’s face it; anything or anyone not named “John Carver” is a step in the right direction. And then there are the signings of Wijnaldum, Mitrovic and Mbemba, all of whom should have a virtuous impact on the team but it cannot end there; the board needs to bring in more players. So, what are the factors to a successful season? Below I have listed 10 elements that’ll pave a way to a “successful” season for Newcastle United.

10) Sticking with and adapting to Steve McClaren’s philosophy and culture

Under Alan Pardew, the club’s discipline tended to get a little out of hand, for a lack of better words. For example, McClaren has signs put up all over the training ground that no longer permits the use of mobile phones. These are the small things that hopefully can instill strictness in a club that utterly lacked it last season. On the contrary, Alan Pardew had the team install individual lockers where they can keep their phones charged at all times last season; a complete 180 in rational and system. This is nothing but a mere example of the difference in culture that McClaren will bring, but now it is up to the players to harmonize the manager’s words. The culture and discipline doesn’t necessarily have to be off the pitch either. McClaren brings a different style of football on the pitch than Pardew did; we have already seen this through a handful of pre-season matches. More structure, less kick-and-run, playing the ball from the back up, etc. It will be instrumental for the players to stick with the McClaren’s plans to result in a successful season.

9) Not cutting into Mitrovic’s development

I cannot stress how crucial and imperative it is to give Mitrovic a free lane. Of course he needs to have some competition and feel a little pressure on his back to perform, but bringing someone in like Charlie Austin would be a critical mistake. I’ve previously made the argument that another striker should not be the priority right now and that it was always Mitrovic OR Charlie Austin, not both. Newcastle bought Mitrovic for an approximate fee of £13m, why would they buy another striker with similar qualities for £15m (or however much Austin will cost)? If NUFC sell Cissé, I would much rather them buy a Saido Berahino-type, a player that would not take time away from Mitrovic; a 20-year old raw, but extremely talented player with a bright future. The coaching staff needs to make sure he flourishes in the Premier League, not sit on the bench behind Charlie Austin. Surely you can make the argument that McClaren can play Austin and Mitrovic on the pitch together, but we have yet to see Newcastle line up with 2 strikers at the same time throughout the pre-season. Both aren’t the fastest either, therefore making them quite vulnerable defensively and at tracking back. Mitrovic will be central to a successful season, but now it is up to the backroom team to give him every single opportunity to play.

8) Better service for the strikers

To be properly blunt and straightforward, the service that Newcastle United’s strikers received last season was absolutely dreadful; from the central midfielder position to the wingers. As a matter of fact, it has been years since the team fielded a proper “winger” who can put in a fitting cross for the attackers. With the likes of Cabella, Gouffran, Sammy Ameobi, Rolando Aarons, Sissoko, Gutierrez and Obertan playing on the wing at some point last season, it would make sense why the service was bunk. I did some research and found out that Newcastle were ranked 13th in the PL last season in assists per team with 30. Top 5 teams were Chelsea (68), Man City (61), Arsenal (49), Man United (41) and Tottenham (40). Last place team in assists? The Mackems at 19! Not to drift from the topic, but it is inexcusable that Daryl Janmaat leads the team in assists with 6, along with Colback; Tioté, Sissoko, Ameobi and Cabella were next in the assist category with 2. As previously mentioned, Newcastle haven’t played with a traditional winger in forever, it is entirely understandable that their creators would come from the CM position, but the RB position? That is severely discouraging. With Yohan Cabaye gone, the creativity from the middle of the field has disappeared, hopefully with Wijnaldum in the folds, that’ll change.

7) Fixing up set pieces

This was one of the biggest problems for Newcastle last season; defending set pieces and picking up defensive assignments. It seemed like 90% of the goals NUFC gave up were either on a corner kick or a free kick. You can only hope that a brand new coaching staff will shore up that issue, or maybe bringing in someone like Mbemba at CB, who is solid in the air. The horrific defending of set pieces could also be due to the lack of leadership and man marking skills at the back, which is somewhat odd seeing as the “captain” plays the CB position, a pivotal role when calling out defensive assignments. It should be Coloccini’s duty and role as a captain and leader to make sure every player is being marked. This was clearly absent last season. I will go into further detail about Coloccini’s role as a captain, or lack thereof, later on.

6) Hoping Krul gets back to form

Newcastle was 2nd in the league last season in goals against. Of course it is impossible to put the sole blame on Tim Krul, but you can also recognize that there was an obvious minor regression on his part. He ranked in the bottom 5 in terms of save rate % at 63.83%, whereas Sunderland keeper Costel Pantillimon was first with a 77.85% rating. The super saves that NUFC fans were used to seeing from Krul were nonexistent and the ball always somehow found a way to squeeze right through him. We’ve seen him at his ultimate best, just watch Newcastle-Tottenham from 2 seasons ago, he has the ability to be one of the best in the league. However, as I said, it’s unreasonable to put the whole guilt on his part; the defenders in front of him were horrendous. He did not know who was starting in front of him on a weekly basis, other than fellow countryman, Daryl Janmaat. Jonas Gutierrez, Ryan Taylor, Vurnon Anita, even Jack Colback saw time at fullback last season. Don’t get me started on Mike Williamson (I’ll examine him into further details shortly). With all of this being said, there’s no doubt Tim Krul needs to be a lot better for Newcastle United to have a top 8 season.

5) Health of Siem De Jong and Rolando Aarons

We never got to see the full ability of De Jong last season, and when we did, he impressed. Battling through serious injuries, including a collapsed lung, Siem’s career in the North East has been off to a slow start. His health will be key to a successful season because he will be playing a vital role under Steve McClaren as the #10 and will need to keep up with the rough environment of the PL. Having captained Ajax for several seasons, it’s fair to say Newcastle missed that type of leadership on the field last season. The health of Rolando Aarons will be particularly important too. We saw what he can do on the field in a handful of matches last season, he causes problems for opposing teams with his pace and quick feet, but once again, struggles with being fit. Meandering with multiple hamstring injuries last season, he only played 4 matches in the PL and scored 1 goal, but also recorded a goal vs Man City in the League Cup. Aarons stood out in all the preseason matches this season and even skipped his summer holidays to devote himself and his body to being fit this season. For Newcastle United and their fan’s sake, let’s hope Rolando can stay healthy this year; he will play a major part if a positive season were to take place.

4) Naming a new captain

Despite the links to Crystal Palace and Olympiakos, it seems as if NUFC captain Fabricio Coloccini will be staying in Tyneside this upcoming season. My pick to take over the armband duties is Jack Colback but that won’t happen with McClaren declaring Coloccini as this season’s captain. My reasoning for the change in leadership is simple: Coloccini hasn’t been the same for a few years now, his production has unquestionably dipped, and having the likes of Mike Williamson, Steven Taylor and Paul Dummett next to him has certainly never helped. He was always a “lead by example” type of captain rather than a vocal leader. After all, he did stick with Newcastle through their Championship campaign but it’s also difficult to forget that he had a move lined up to San Lorenzo two years ago that was blocked by Newcastle. A change of leadership in the clubhouse will go a long way to sending a message to the players that this is not the same Newcastle United that was coached by Alan Pardew.

3) A new CB and keep the transfers rolling

I’ve previously written about the significance of adding another CB in this summer’s transfer window, but with Coloccini likely to stay, it seems a tad less realistic. Regardless, after adding Chancel Mbemba, the CBs at the moment are: Fabricio Coloccini, Chancel Mbemba, Steven Taylor, Mike Williamson, Jamaal Lascelles and Paul Dummett (who is also a LB). Is that good enough? Once again, there’s quantity but a glaring lack of quality. Coloccini is 33 years old; his best years are behind him. Bringing in another CB will also play a major role in a few other keys listed above, including the goals against, Tim Krul’s struggles, defending set pieces, etc. I’ve listed the potential CBs that Newcastle should have interest in, pick any of those guys and this team will immensely improve next season. However, the transfers need to continue at other positions too. Including another winger, a striker if Cissé gets sold, and even a LB (Haidar is not the answer). NUFC have been linked to Florian Thauvin, Saido Berahino, Charlie Austin, Faouzi Ghoulam, amongst many others. Any of those players would have a colossal influence on this club.

2) Playing with a purpose, passion and enthusiasm

Long gone are the days of Sir Bobby Robson and Alan Shearer. The days where Newcastle United was a feared group of players, a team that the opposition would circle on their calendars months in advance. With one of the best stadiums, a loyal and passionate fan base, Newcastle need to get back to their endearing ways. Bringing in players with a winning mentality goes a long way and is substantial for the locker room morale. Georginio Wijnaldum captained PSV to the Eredivisie league title last season; Mitrovic and Mbemba were on the Anderlecht team that won the 2013-2014 Belgian Pro League title, and both have Champions League experience. I’m not sitting here saying those 3 will bring Newcastle a PL title, but their championship experience will bring a positive attitude to a club who has been on the complete opposite spectrum of winning. The lack of enthusiasm and passion shown by the players in recent years can be blamed on a trickle effect that runs down from the owner and top of organization, onto the coaching staff, and so forth. With Mike Ashley stepping down from the director’s board and a brand new coaching staff, the Toon Army will hope that means St. James will be riveting and enthralling on game day once again; bringing back memories of the Shearer and Les Ferdinand days. The West Ham match from last season is a perfect example of how startling the Geordie Nation can be with a team that’s playing with heart and representing the Black and White with pride.

 1) No. More. Mike. Williamson.

For the love of God, this has to end.

The experience has to end. He was 2nd in minutes played throughout the pre-season; it’s no longer excusable. Newcastle finally has depth at the CB position; Mike Williamson should no longer see any minutes, period. Steve McClaren said he wanted to give everyone a fresh start and clean state, but if Willo sees first team minutes this season, it means Newcastle United are back to the same problem that Pardew ran into. Showing absolutely no signs of improvement, zero pace or mobility, he is a Championship CB playing for a PL club. Please end it, Steve!

Depending on the next few transfers and moves, if Newcastle United do not finish in the top 10, it should be looked at as a disappointment, simply put. With the likes of Sissoko, Wijnaldum, Janmaat, Mbemba, Aarons, De Jong and Mitrovic, this team is too talented to not finish in the top 10. Steve McClaren may have promised a top 8 finish, but we don’t demand a club that WINS, we demand a club that TRIES. Seeing that passion and enthusiasm on the pitch will go a long way in to bringing back one of the most dedicated and loyal fan bases in all of the UK; and I promise that passion will be reciprocated by the Geordie supporters and the Toon Army.

This is my lineup for the starting 11 vs Southampton on Sunday.

Aziz’s lineup

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