Discover more from Grace on Football
Can Newcastle do a Man City?
The choices made now will reverberate for years to come.
Hi, everyone. This article primarily thinks of the Newcastle takeover as a football story. I’m certainly not someone who thinks we should just stick to football and leave everything else at the door, and never will be. There are worthwhile conversations to be had there. But this will not be that.
The template is obvious.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund takes a struggling club in a northern city with a reliably loyal core of supporters. The PIF spend their vast sums of money on infrastructure, improved facilities, coaching staff and, most importantly, lots of very good players. It takes a little bit of time for everything to come together, but the league title is delivered within a few years of buying the club.
At least, that’s how Manchester City did it. Can Newcastle do the same? Let’s look at what the previous nouveau riche club did, what they got right and wrong, and how much can transfer over to Newcastle.
How Man City did it
Sheikh Mansour and Abu Dhabi United Group bought Man City with one day left of the transfer window. They demanded a big name – literally any star player – to make the deal happen, and they landed Robinho. Things only really began to look different in January, The club spent New Year’s Day 2009 only two points off relegation, so it surprised no one when they spent big. In total, their 2008-09 incomings (minus the summer buys of the previous regime) looked like this:
Robinho, Wayne Bridge, Craig Bellamy, Nigel de Jong, Shay Given.
That’s one galactico, one reasonably promising European midfielder, and three solid Premier League veterans. They had wanted to make even more of a splash, but an approach for Kaka didn’t work out.
The easiest and most straightforward way to judge a transfer success is by minutes played. This is especially true of a club like City, who can easily just buy a better player if someone isn’t up to it. Of those who did come that year, all five played plenty of games in their first seasons at what is now the Etihad. The following campaign, Robinho pretty much bombed out, playing only 16% of league minutes. Given and De Jong played a lot of football, while Bellamy and Bridge were solidly on the pitch more than half the time. But two years after the arrivals, De Jong was alone in still getting on the pitch at all. That’s only one of five signings having an impact longer than 18 months.
The 2009-10 season saw these arrivals:
Gareth Barry, Roque Santa Cruz, Stuart Taylor, Carlos Tevez, Emmanuel Adebayor, Kolo Toure, Sylvinho, Joleon Lescott, Patrick Vieira, Adam Johnson.
What stands out is that all of these players had experience of English football. Things are also much more mixed. Only Barry, Tevez, Adebayor and Toure played more than half the league minutes, though Lescott would improve the following year. Santa Cruz in particular was a complete write-off. Tevez burned twice as bright as any of these other stars but for half as long, having three really good seasons in a City shirt with a weird bust-up in the middle. Ultimately this wasn’t a bad bunch, with Barry, Tevez and Lescott still playing a fair amount 2+ years after signing.
The 2010-11 season, Roberto Mancini’s first full campaign in charge, saw these names come in:
Jerome Boateng, Yaya Toure, David Silva, Aleksandar Kolarov, Mario Balotelli, James Milner, Edin Dzeko.
This is more like it. You have two genuinely brilliant buys in Toure and Silva, followed by solid long term contributors in Kolarov, Milner and Dzeko. If we follow “Tomkins’ Law” that only 50% of transfers succeed, City are smashing that here. Of the outright failures, Balotelli still had his moments, and Boateng was clearly a good player who just didn’t settle.
And finally, the season they delivered the title brought these players:
Gael Clichy, Stefan Savic, Sergio Aguero, Samir Nasri, Owen Hargreaves.
One legitimate superstar, two decent contributors, and two write-offs. What feels apparent is they had a much lower hit rate when they were constructing a squad pretty much from scratch. You could sell them on just about anyone coming in, and City would have no idea if that player would fit with three other signings that hadn’t been made yet. It really is difficult to construct a squad from scratch in any sort of coherent way.
So I think the lesson for Newcastle is just to go into this with any sort of plan. Don’t throw money at all sorts of different things to see what sticks. Have an idea of how you want your team to eventually look, and sign players in that specific vein. If that means you don’t land one or two exciting names, so be it.
Can Newcastle get there?
There’s one very big elephant in the room here: Newcastle are 19th in the Premier League table.
There’s a chance a new manager comes in and immediately gets a good run of results, lifting the club out of the relegation scrap. But I think they have to work under the assumption that won’t happen. The first two steps – hiring a manager, and buying this January – have to first and foremost get Newcastle out of trouble.
This team is not good right now. Their expected goal difference of -7.2 puts them right where you’d predict from the table. But for a strong run in the second half of last season, Newcastle have generally been putting up relegation numbers under Bruce and getting away with it. This matches what most have seen to the eye. Newcastle fans have been questioned by the wider footballing world for criticising Bruce’s adequate results, but the table hides just how poor the performances have often been. Again, save for a run in the second half of last season driven by Graeme Jones, Newcastle have never shown any tactical identity. They generally do not press at all, but simultaneously leave oceans of space in behind. It’s just rubbish. The next manager can, and should, be doing much more.
The realities of today require a different approach to the dreams of tomorrow. Newcastle need to find tactical cohesion pretty quickly in a limited squad. The most straightforward way to do it would be to sit back, stay compact without the ball, and attack through Allan Saint-Maximin and Callum Wilson on the break. That’s obviously not the destination, and the temptation is thus to hire someone who will bring a more expansive style of football.
It’s finding the balance between these two points that could determine Newcastle’s trajectory. Get it absolutely right and they’ll be in a good position to jump up the table over the next couple of years. Get it a little bit worse and it’ll be a much harder journey up. Get it disastrously wrong and it’ll be a long way back from down in the Championship.