As Manchester City have bulldozed their way through the second half of the season that gives off the feeling that they’re simply strolling to a Treble, if bulldozing, and strolling can be the same thing, there’s been a question of what anyone can do to stop them in the years to come. Sadly, for everyone outside Newcastle, they’ve grudgingly had to admit that one possibility is to be owned by your own Middle Eastern government and to be a sportswashing vehicle for a different regime soaked in blood. It’s not quite that simple, but the money afforded to Newcastle United by Saudi Arabia certainly is a big step. And they took another one yesterday.
Newcastle qualified for next season’s Champions League with their scoreless draw with Leicester City, and in one measure they’re actually ahead of Man City. It took the latter three seasons under their ownership to crack the top four, and Newcastle has done it in their second. City, of course, then added two league titles in the next three seasons after that, which no one is expecting Newcastle to do, because when City did it, there wasn’t a Man City like this in the way.
Just looking at simple, on-the-field squads, there’s also a key difference between that City team of 2011 and this Newcastle team. The former had a raft of players in their primes or just about to enter it. Vincent Kompany, Yaya Touré, David Silva, Carlos Tevez, James Milner were all between 24 and 27, and ready to grow (if you can actually believe that Milner was once in his 20s). Sergio Agüero was added in the summer after that 3rd place finish, and he was of the same age window. Same goes for Samir Nasri and Micah Richards.
This Newcastle team…is kind of old? Its spine is not, as Sven Botman, Bruno Guimarães, Joelinton, Joe Willock, and Alexander Isak are between 23, or 26. That’s a good start. But the rest of their key contributors are, seemingly, on the downside of their careers, even if they’ve just got on the other side of the crest. Dan Burn is 31. So is Fabian Schär. Kieran Trippier is 32. That’s three-fourths of the normal back four and the team’s best chance-creator in Trippier. Callum Wilson, who supports Isak, or can pair with him, is in his 30s too. Miguel Almiron is about to enter his 30s.
Most of these guys have had career seasons. Trippier certainly has more freedom than he ever did at Atletico Madrid, but his chance-creation from right-back has been galactic. Can he do it again at 33 with Champions League games thrown in? Schär has played 1,000 more minutes this season than he ever has. Burn hasn’t played this much in five years when he was in League One. Wilson has clearly benefited from playing with better players than he did at Bournemouth and has been a consistent Premier League goalscorer. He put up another shot per 90 this season more than ever before, will that continue as he ages?
Here comes the money
The fear among fans and observers is that this isn’t much of a problem for Newcastle, because they can just buy a whole new team. And they will. They’ve spent somewhere around $339 million in the past two seasons, or basically half a Chelsea.
What’s actually frightening is that Newcastle’s front office, headed by ex-Brighton director Dan Ashworth, is that their best buys have been the ones that flew under the radar. Isak was the big ticket item this season at $75 million, and he’s been good. But Botman and goalkeeper Nick Pope cost a combined $50 million or so. Last season, Guimarães cost around $45 million, and he’s the unquestioned heartbeat of the team. Trippier cost $15 million. So did Burn. Maybe they’ve spread the money around instead of fishing in the “Neymar” pond, but they’ve gotten most of it right. Money + smarts = problems for everyone else. We don’t need to discuss the purchase of Anthony Gordon, though we can for a chuckle. Dude can’t turn left.
But depending on how much of a problem they diagnose their age in certain spots around the field, it’s hard to blend a host of new players together while also playing twice a week pretty much every week. It’s possible, but it’s a new level of strata for the club.
Still, there’s an element of foreboding with Newcastle, that they’ll just be the next state-run monster roaming the countryside that other teams can’t run with aside from City and if Manchester United get taken over by Qatar. And that the Premier League will just be a proxy war for esteem and acclaim by oil states.
Maybe. Newcastle still have some ways to go to build the depth to do that, and even City didn’t get it right for about 10 years until Pep Guardiola was given a couple seasons to restructure the club. Eddie Howe is a very good manager, but he’s not that. Newcastle need depth on the wings — which they tried to address with the purchase of Gordon which… ha— and in defense, especially at fullback. They need a plan when Guimarães isn’t around, because they were a completely different team when he was hurt, or suspended.
It’s a step in the right direction for sure, and a big one. But we all might still have a season or two before Newcastle are the next club that Real Madrid and Juventus are trying to get thrown out of European competition for whatever reasons they can make up.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate to see his Alexis Mac Allister shrine.