Newcastle United Season Preview: could Rafa walk?

With the 2018-19 Premier League season coming up, The Football Lab spoke to Newcastle United fan Carl Hudson (@jabbinho). Carl is doing the Great North Run 2018 to raise money for St Benedict’s Hospice – do check out his Fundraising Page.

There remains plenty of tensions between the Newcastle United fans and the owner, Mike Ashley. How important a mediating role has Rafa Benitez played?

At the minute it feels, without Benitez, the club could implode. Certainly the fans would go crazy if (when) he leaves and I do think internally his presence does give a sense of stability.

The first major piece of news this summer was that goalkeeper Martin Dubravka signed on a permanent deal. After his performances in the second half of last season, you must be delighted?

Its funny, when he signed we were thinking, “we don’t need another keeper” but his performances were outstanding and hopefully will bring Karl Darlow along a bit. A great piece of transfer work by the club (not often we say that at the moment).

Aside from Dubravka though, some would say you haven’t really improved the Championship title-winning squad. Would you ask questions of the recruitment team?

It’s hard without really knowing what goes on. We never seemed to be linked with anyone but then the club will say all negotiations failed. Is that the recruitment team’s fault or just the fact we don’t want to (or can’t) spend any money?

DeAndre Yedlin provided a lot of your width in the 2016-17. Has he had to play a more conservative role since you went up a division?

Safety first was the key for us last season. Wasn’t pretty at times but all the players did their job achieving that.

It’s easy to forget sometimes, that Jamaal Lascelles is only 24. Over the last two years, have you been impressed with the maturity with which he has embraced the captaincy?

Definitely. He could be the next Mr Newcastle. I really hope he gets to play for England whilst at Newcastle. He does need to calm down sometimes but I really like him.

You perhaps struggled to find a regular centre-back partner for Lascelles last season. Do you prefer Ciaran Clark, Florian Lejeune or Chancel Mbemba?

I think I prefer Lejeune, he seems to be more at ease.

Paul Dummett looks an honest but limited left-back. Would you like the club to bring in a more attacking option, or could Achraf Lazaar fill that void?

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Lazaar play unfortunately!

Many believed that Jonjo Shelvey was unlucky to be left out of the England squad this summer. How impressive has he been in that deep-lying playmaker role?

When he’s up for it he should be in the England team with a doubt. Unfortunately I don’t think those days outweigh the average performances. And then his reputation can go before him.

Mikel Merino has gone to Real Sociedad, Isaac Hayden did well in the Championship but there’s suggestions he perhaps struggled to step up. Ki Sung-Yeung has come in, but do you need another box-to-box midfielder?

Yes, I’m all in favour of competition!

Matt Ritchie isn’t the quickest of wide men but there seems to be an intelligence to his game. Glad he’s staying on?

Yes. His attitude is fantastic too. Another one who can rally the troops on a bad day.

Kenedy has missed one or two pre-season games for family reasons. Does this open things up for Josh Murphy or Christian Atsu to get more chances on the wing?

It should do. Murphy looked improved last season but does need time on the pitch. I’ve never really been overly impressed with Atsu. He needs to develop his final ball, hopefully they’ll have been working on that with him preseason.

Ayoze Perez looks a popular figure in that number 10 role. How important will it be to keep him fit?

Given the lack of strength in depth in the squad, we need all the players to stay fit!

Perez was your top league goalscorer last season with eight; Dwight Gayle only managed six and has now been swapped on loan for Salomon Rondon with West Brom. Given the dearth of quality strikers, would it be a mistake to let Aleksandar Mitrovic go back to Fulham?

I don’t think Benitez likes Mitrovic’s style and we certainly could never take advantage of him in the way Fulham and Serbia have. He’s an honest player and will be welcomed back to SJP when he returns with Fulham this season but £22-27m for him is another piece of good transfer business (we just need to spend that money on replacing him!).

Toon aside, what are your thoughts ahead of the Premier League season as a whole? How do you rate your competitors?

It’ll be the usual bun fight between those that somehow can keep within the fair play rules but spend eye-watering amounts on players.

Where will you finish?

With only a few more days until the transfer window closes and no sign of a quality striker I can see it being a long, hard season. I’m genuinely worried Benitez may be gone by September. If he stays I can’t see much higher than 14th (being optimistic as ever).
I can’t bear to think what it’d be like if he leaves!

The Football Lab’s Verdict

Newcastle United might have attained a top half finish last season, but baring Martin Dubravka, Jamaal Lascelles and Matt Ritchie, major question marks linger over the squad, which has barely been strengthened this summer. Rafa Benitez has played a diplomatic role but were he to walk, as he might feel entitled to do, fans would turn against Mike Ashley and the atmosphere could turn sour. A tough year, on and off the pitch, could be in the offing. 18th