Premier League 2018-19 preview No 15: Newcastle United

Rafael Benítez is frustrated that he has not been allowed the players he wants and that is unlikely to change as he enters the final 12 months of his contract and Mike Ashley remains in charge

Guardian writers’ predicted position: 13th (NB: this is not necessarily Louise Taylor’s prediction but the average of our writers’ tips)

Last season’s position: 10th

Odds to win the league (via Oddschecker): 750-1

The cult of the manager has become so powerful that their influence over events on the pitch can be exaggerated.

It is a caveat which most certainly does not apply to Rafael Benítez and Newcastle United, where the Spaniard’s transformative effect on a fairly limited squad can hardly be overstated.

Without Benítez’s painstaking training ground rehearsals, astute in-game technical area choreography and rare ability to improve certain players almost beyond recognition, Newcastle would not have finished a respectable 10th in last season’s Premier League.

The paradox is that Benítez’s success in defying the relegation a lesser coach might have presided over may prove Newcastle’s ultimate undoing. Liverpool’s Champions League-winning manager of 2005 has said he sometimes feels he gets “punished” for improving players and, in Mike Ashley, he is employed by an owner delighted to inflict such pain.

Ashley does not like splashing the cash on footballers so, possessing a manager capable of finishing mid-table with minimal outlay, represents nirvana to the sports retail magnate.

Unfortunately he now seems in real peril of losing Benítez next summer – and perhaps before – with the manager seeming to be at the end of his tether as he enters the final year of his contract and continues to decline to sign a new deal. Granted there is a deterrent to resignation in the form of a clause in the contract stipulating that the manager must pay Ashley £6m if he quits – perhaps this is one reason why Benítez recently parted with his Spanish agent? – but as the months roll by, restraint of trade laws will surely dictate that it becomes obsolete. “I can’t guarantee what will happen,” says Benítez. “But in my head, it’s stay and fight.”

Newcastle

The reluctance to allow any managerial speculation to accumulate is not merely restricted to transfers – where Newcastle are showing a healthy profit this summer – but extends to infrastructure. Indeed Ashley’s failure to provide assurances that he is willing to upgrade the training ground, under-23 set-up and academy largely explains why Benítez has claimed that “everything” is wrong behind the scenes at St James’ Park.

The Spaniard is primarily concerned about the depth of his squad and though he this week managed to secure West Brom’s Salomón Rondón in a 12-month swap deal involving Dwight Gayle, he also wants a No 10, a centre-half and a left back, but claims to have “no idea” as to whether they will be secured. “The fans have to be concerned,” he said. “We are concerned. I’m really worried.”

His anxieties are amplified by an unresolved debate between players and the board over bonus payments – which means the squad are currently refusing media commitments – but there has also been an erosion of trust between the manager and Lee Charnley, Newcastle’s MD who serves as a conduit between Ashley and Benítez.

The latter is a practised politician but his latest complaints run much deeper than merely being a case of a coach putting pressure on his board before the closure of a transfer window.

Perhaps by way of punishing the former Valencia, Liverpool, Internazionale, Chelsea, Napoli and Real Madrid manager for not agreeing that new deal, Benitez has been told he must sell to buy and will not be receiving the £45m he initially banked on spending.

The suspicion is that while the latter remains hungry for trophies and European adventure, simply treading water in the Premier League with its gargantuan broadcast deal is sufficient for Ashley.

Summer arrivals feature Martin Dubravka having made his move from Sparta Prague permanent for £4.5m, while Kenedy has also rejoined, on loan from Chelsea, Ki is now a midfield option after leaving Swansea on a free transfer and £3m transported Switzerland’s Fabian Schär from Deportivo La Coruña to Tyneside. A £9.5m deal for Mainz’s Japan forward Yoshinori Muto has also been completed.

Against that Mikel Merino has joined Real Sociedad for £10m, Aleksandar Mitrovic was sold to Fulham for £22m, Chancel Mbemba made an £8m move to Porto and Matz Sels headed to Strasbourg for £3.5m.

Benítez remains adamant a team vastly improved by the arrival of Dubravka and Kenedy on loan last January requires further reinforcement. Strengthening at centre-half seems a priority with Florian Lejeune now sidelined for most of the season with a serious knee injury.

Newcastle

As if Benítez’s mood was not already gloomy enough he is disappointed to have lost his key ally and press officer, Wendy Taylor, to the FA, where she will work with Phil Neville’s Lionesses. Meanwhile Peter Beardsley, Newcastle’s Under-23 coach has now been suspended since January while the club conduct a seemingly interminable investigation into bullying and racism claims, which he denies. The sense of stasis is both unfortunate and serves as a microcosm of the club’s wider woes.

Given that his team’s first five Premier League fixtures – Tottenham at home, Cardiff away, Chelsea at home, Manchester City away and Arsenal at home – are somewhat brutal, Benítez’s fears appear anything but overblown. Jonjo Shelvey is capable of lifting the team to a different level but the playmaker needs help; not to mention high-calibre strikers to aim those Hoddle-esque passes at.

One problem is that Ashley prefers to sign players aged 26 and under as they generally possess greater resale potential. He sees experience as overly expensive and was duly reluctant to pay hard cash for Rondón, who is nearly 29.

It all creates an overwhelming sense of an opportunity wasted. With their imposing city centre home invariably packed to 52,000-plus capacity, Newcastle should arguably be competing in Europe almost every season but, paradoxically, their fanbase’s apparently unconditional love for the club is a weakness as well as a strength.

During the past decade there have been a number of pressure groups and organised protests against Ashley’s regime - the latest if #ifRafaGoesWeGo – but they have barely raised a scratch on one of the thickest skins in football.

The owner might take notice were crowds to drop but Newcastle fans are both intensely loyal to the team and considerably less militant than often advertised. Things might change if Benítez quits but, significantly, the branch of Sports Direct sited on Northumberland Street, one of the city’s main shopping thoroughfares, continues to thrive.

In an ideal world Ashley would sell Newcastle for £400m but buyers remain elusive – at least at that price – and Amanda Staveley’s much mooted bid for the club last season ultimately came to nothing.

If it is not impossible that Tyneside could wake up one morning to learn that the club has been taken over by a new rich owner – as Manchester City have proved the most significant buy-outs tend to occur amid utter discretion – but it is also quite likely that the current regime will outlast Benítez at St James’.

Contributor

Louise Taylor

The GuardianTramp

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