There is a lot of negativity in the world of Newcastle United at the moment.
As the new Premier League season approaches, the club seems to be heading in the campaign under a cloud of uncertainty. This shouldn’t be a new feeling for Newcastle supporters, with the Mike Ashley era littered with moments like this.
A case of once bitten, twice shy.
Or should that be once bitten, thrice shy?
Sunday’s season opener against Spurs will likely see Rafa Benitez start with the same strike force that saw the club relegated from the Premier League. There is a desperate need for two or three useful additions.
But there are a number of reasons to be positive ahead of the season.
It has been a positive summer in the transfer market
With United supporters looking at what hasn’t been done, there is a tendency to ignore what has come through the doors.
Florian Lejeune is a smart addition, and as a keen follower of La Liga, I am yet to see a centre back that is more suited to the Premier League.
Jacob Murphy and Christian Atsu add pace and trickery, their direct style will suit the style of play that Benitez will likely implement on a regular basis this season.
From last season’s trying to break down a defensive opposition, this season will see more of a need to launch into quick counter-attacks after being under pressure (more of this later).
Mikel Merino could be the jewel in the crown. His poise and power will give them midfield an extra dimension. His ability to play in a number of midfield positions will give Benitez the flexibility he requires.
And although the addition of Javier Manquillo has been questioned, it does give the United manager an experienced option in both full back positions. His work with DeAndre Yedlin shows that Benitez can instil discipline to a primarily attack-minded full back.
Yes, extra quality is still required, but let’s not ignore what has been brought in so far.
Points to prove
A number of the Newcastle squad will be looking to prove a point upon their return to the Premier League.
A number of key players were relegated with the club, or with another, and will now look to prove that they are capable of mixing it with the best. Ciaran Clark is a key example.
He was, of course, relegated with Aston Villa, but was transformed by Benitez into a steady centre back last season. It would be foolish to ignore the step-up in class of the opposition United will face this season.
But the uncertainties have been taken out of his game. He looks more of a leader, more assured, more confident.
The same could be said of the likes of Ayoze Perez, Rob Elliot, Paul Dummett and a number of players.
Newcastle were constantly told they won the Championship with Premier League players, so why now are they told that these players are not Premier League quality?
Over the past four or five years, Newcastle have been sold to players as a stepping stone to bigger things.
That fractured and failed transfer policy ultimately led to relegation. The likes of Janmaat, Sissoko, Debuchy and Cabaye saw the club as the next step.
Maybe it is just me, maybe I am naïve, but you get the sense this group of players actually enjoy playing for Newcastle. They want to be here and they appreciate the support of the fans.
There seems to be a spirit of togetherness, no doubt fostered by Benitez and his coaching staff.
That will be tested to the full this season, where things won’t always go their way as it did last season. There will be a need for a “together as one” attitude.
That is when the spirit could come to the fore throughout this season.
I don’t mind admitting I am a huge fan of Jonjo Shelvey.
In a season where Newcastle will need to make the most of their possession, Shelvey can be the one that takes control of the game.
If, as is to be believed, he has come back fresh and focused, then he can be the spark that Newcastle need. Again, as I said earlier, Benitez will find his system tested this season as his side take on the Premier League elite.
But there is a flexibility in the heart of midfield that will allow him to make changes in an instant.
The much-discussed number ten role could be neglected in games where the opposition will take the game to United. That could mean Benitez using a midfield of Merino, Shelvey and the excellent Isaac Hayden.
With Merino and Hayden used as holding midfielders, the emphasis could be on Shelvey to drive forward, a much under-rated part of his game.
If he is in the right frame of mind, Shelvey could change Newcastle from taking part in a relegation battle to a comfortable mid-table finish.
Ask anyone that has played under Rafa Benitez, watched one of his sides or worked alongside him and they will praise his tactical nous.
And all of his tactical nous will be fully tested throughout the coming season. The man himself has described the season as a “big challenge”.
It has been notable that Benitez has tried a few new formations in pre-season. He has played with three at the back, with two wing-backs and his much-used 4-2-3-1 system.
No matter how it has been put together, Benitez possesses a flexible squad.
He has full backs that are made for a wing back role, something that could be added to should the rumoured loan addition of Kenedy come to fruition. He has options to play in the number ten role, or as mentioned earlier three midfielders that can sit deep.
Benitez also has a squad that has worked under his guidance for a year. They know what he wants from them and he knows how to get what he requires from his players. It should be noted that at times United struggled to break down packed Championship defences last season. Most opposition will not do the same this season, especially when United are the away side.
I always get the impression Benitez is more comfortable with a defensive system. That could play into his hands this season if he is allowing teams to come onto Newcastle.
There will be no lack of attention to detail when he is planning and implementing the systems he believes are required to get the results he wants. In an ideal world, would he want to work with a higher-calibre of player? Of course he would.
Would he have the first choice targets ahead of some of his signings? Unquestionably. But as he says, he has what he has and he will use every drop of his undoubted managerial ability to get the best out of them.
There is an unquestionable need for more from Newcastle’s hierarchy this pre-season. It is clear that Benitez is frustrated with the transfer market as a whole and United’s lack of first-choice signings.
They do need a proven goalscorer and someone to snatch a goal out of nothing. It will be a tough season, but there are some reasons to be positive as the club returns to the Premier League.