Well, fellow footy fans: the big show is finally back. This weekend marks the official start to the 2018-2019 Premier League season, and it promises to be one for the ages. Can Man City pull off a repeat of last year’s incredible title-winning campaign? Will Arsenal and Liverpool reach new heights courtesy of their considerable transfer window investment? Which of the recently promoted sides, including old Prem veterans Fulham, will avoid the dreaded drop in their first season back in the top flight? All these storylines and more will dominate our lives for the next 38 weeks.
Of course, as the Tottenham writer I’m obviously more interested in covering a certain Poch and Co.’s first match of the new season. Spurs face a trip to Tyneside Saturday morning for a tricky opening fixture against Newcastle, a team who typically pose a significant challenge for us. It’s a tough one to call, but fortunately I don’t have to do it alone. Instead, I’ve got the perfect excuse to rope Soccity’s resident Newcastle expert and 5-a-side teammate of mine Jeff Crum into this preview article to offer a Toon-centric perspective on this intriguing opening match-up.
Crum and I are both men of many words, and we’ve got plenty to say about this one. So grab a coffee, have a seat right over there (who doesn’t love a good Chris Hansen reference?), and dive into a combo piece so verbose our editors almost quit when they had to read it. (Editor’s note: True story.)
The Scouting Report
Upon entering the summer, manager Rafa Benitez was told he’d have 40 million pounds to play with before having to worry about selling players to fund new purchases. By Newcastle standards, this counted as “an enticing prospect”. I even prepared think pieces on how exciting this could become, as players like Aleksandar Mitrovic, Chancel Mbemba, and Dwight Gayle were no longer in the plans and yet, were valuable commodities to someone.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
For the second off-season in a row, owner Mike Ashley and his team did not follow through on their promises, forcing Benitez and his team to dig deep into their scouting networks for players who fit his system. Benitez, to his credit, has not minced meat in explaining to the media what he needs. Now entering the final year of his contract, the Spaniard’s words could well cause Newcastle fans anxiety at the prospect of our best manager since Sir Bobby Robson walking away from the club. There was even a rumor offering Rafa Benitez to the Spanish National Team shortly after their firing of Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the World Cup. If true, this represents the most blatant attempt to offload the manager for profit, giving new meaning to the term “Seller’s Club”.
There’s more frustration than just the manager’s vocalizations, though. The fans started Twitter hashtag #ifRafagoesWego to galvanize a frustrated fanbase. On Saturday, the home crowd is expected to cheer for 11 minutes to signify their displeasure at the 11th year of Mike Ashley’s regime. The alienation of the ownership group has even reached the players, who are boycotting media events due to disagreements over their end-of-season bonuses. This hopefully lights a fire under Mike Ashley to sell the team; England does not have a pleasant history when dealing with tyrants.
As for the transfer action, the presence of significantly fewer funds did not force a halt on positive change. Newcastle were able to continue offloading players who did not fit the mold, including the sales of Aleksandar Mitrovic and Chancel Mbemba and the loan of Dwight Gayle. In replacement of those players came Yoshinori Muto and Salomon Rondon, who each provide an interesting upside and pedigree versus Gayle and Joselu. Newcastle was also able to find quality at bargain bin prices with the acquisition of Ki Sung-Yueng on a free transfer and Fabian Schar, fresh off a quality display in the World Cup, on a £3.5 million transfer following Deportivo’s relegation in Spain. The return loan of Kenedy and the finalization of Martin Dubravka’s loan-to-buy option ensure two of the best sparks from last season’s great second half remain in the squad as well.
However, there was still work to be done in the squad with mere days left in the Premier League transfer window. Isaac Hayden had put in a transfer request to be closer with his wife and young child. Meanwhile, depth was sorely needed at left-back, as well as the holding midfield position where there was no alternative to Mohamed Diame, at the number 10 role an alternative to Ayoze Perez, and at centre-back due to the loss of Florian Lejeune for the entire season. Not surprisingly, most of these things weren’t done in the paltry 3 days that remained in the window this week. Rafa and his team did manage to strengthen their back line, though, with the last gasp transfer of Swansea’s Federico Fernandez for an undisclosed fee on deadline day.
Another summer, another 3 months of disappointment for yours truly. I knew something seemed suspicious at the end of last season when talk of a $100M war chest was floating around Spurs fan circles, and my skepticism has once again been validated. Silly yids, Daniel Levy is allergic to spending money, no matter how charming Pochettino manages to come across in interviews. It was a typical “linked with everyone, sign no one” summer period for Poch and the club. Meanwhile, want-away players like Dembele and Alderweireld weren’t shifted off the squad, which you would think certainly played a role in preventing new players from arriving. Levy, after all, rarely buys without selling first.
So, here we sit at the beginning of a new season with 0 new recruits and more than half the squad still hungover from their final four appearances at the World Cup. Just peachy. In the absence of any truly useful transfer dealings, Pochettino has strongly hinted he’ll turn to youth in order to solve our squad depth issues. Given that our World Cup contingent only started training on Monday the 6th, it’s unlikely all of them will start Saturday’s match. Instead, guys like Walker-Peters and even Luke Amos may wind up getting run outs at fullback and center midfield, respectively. The situation is definitely not ideal, even if some of our youth players look ready to step up this year.
Don’t even get me started on the fact that we earned the rather ironic “honor” of being the ONLY Premier League team to fail to secure a single signing this window. Levy and the board have failed the manager big time, and even Poch’s calm, assured demeanor is sure to be tested by a season in which we’ll compete on 4 fronts with a team being pushed to its limits in terms of squad depth and injury cover.
My dear friend Mike is most likely going to tell you Spurs are better on paper. As much as I’d love to disagree, I cannot. Spurs are a great side, and the most consistent Prem squad of the last 5 years. However, there are many factors which play advantageously to the Newcastle cause.
First and foremost, while he may not be happy with ownership, the fact remains that Rafa Benitez is one of the best managers on the planet. Last season he took a squad many expected to be relegated and got them to finish top half of the table. This was due in part to three things: 1) unrelenting tactical study and execution, 2) the never-wavering support of the locker room, and 3) the never-wavering support of the fans. As long as those are in place, Rafa has a fighting chance. Especially at home; just ask Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester United how Newcastle can play at St. James’ Park.
Secondly, most of the Newcastle locker room enjoyed a relaxing tournament. While many of Tottenham’s squad went deep into the World Cup, Newcastle’s chief representatives were only recently purchased (Ki, Muto, Schär). The crux of the squad from last year, which I imagine will be ever-present in the opening day starting XI, did not play for their nations (or do not represent a nation which qualified). This gap in recovery time is huge, considering our opening weekend match and the grueling early season schedule.
Finally, Newcastle has the ability to make St. James’ Park an uncomfortable place for travelling fans. Wins against Arsenal, Manchester United, and Chelsea show what kind of menace and havoc we create. This was even experienced by Tottenham on the opening day last year, where for 45 minutes they were unable to unlock the Newcastle defense. Success was only achieved when Jonjo Shelvey was sent off for retaliation on Dele Alli. Expect St. James’ Park to be loud, raucous, and in support of the squad.
I expect a similar 4-2-3-1 like what we saw last year. At the end of the season, the attacking three of Matt Ritchie, Kenedy, and Ayoze Perez was electric, and can get at a Tottenham defense which is using back-ups or is forced to play players returning early from World Cup holiday. If we decide to give Tottenham a game, they are likely to challenge us, which can provide Shelvey with the space he needs to play a killer pass. Furthermore, we should be able to contend with the speed of wingers such as Son and Lucas Moura.
If we decide to be condensed for certain portions of the match, Benitez will use the tireless efforts of the aforementioned attacking three, as well as the striker—expected to be either Rondon or Muto—to press the Spurs back line. The danger of Newcastle is Benitez can get the squad to be both in quick succession, and both styles of play are possible on the day.
As Jeff alluded to, Spurs are definitely the better side here. Almost our entire starting XI was involved in the latter stages of this summer’s World Cup, with our two heaviest national contingents (Belgians + English) arguably over-performing against pre-tournament expectations. Verts and Toby were part of a Belgian defense that managed to keep Neymar’s Brazil quiet, while Kieran Trippier had a breakout tournament as a key part of an England run that also saw Harry Kane win the golden boot.
That said…all of these guys spent the majority of their post-Russia time on holiday. I’m not sure how many of them Poch will deem ready to go on Saturday, which means that players like Lucas and Son are going to be asked to carry the team through this first game. Based on pre-season performances, that shouldn’t be an issue; hell, even N’Koudou looked decent during our US tour. It’s undeniable, however, that a Spurs team that doesn’t start the likes of Dele, Eriksen, and Kane is decidedly weaker than one that does. Of those 3, I can really only see Eriksen being green-lit for involvement Saturday, as his stay in Russia was cut short sooner than others’. Then again, our lack of a second fit center mid may force Dele into action as well. Thanks, Mr. Levy.
In any case, similar to Jeff, I’m also expecting something resembling a 4-2-3-1 on Saturday, with a mix of experienced players and some of our youth prospects. Three-at-the-back seems out of the question unless Toby is involved, which I don’t see happening given his will-he/won’t-he transfer saga this summer. Son, Sanchez, Lucas, and Eriksen should all start in my opinion and will provide a reasonably solid spine, particularly in attack. Llorente can have the first 60-odd minutes up top and be replaced by Kane only if we have still failed to score at the hour mark. At the back, I think Walker-Peters and Davies will get the fullback nods, with Verts partnering the Sanchez (sorry, Toby). In center midfield, Dier will probably start because he’s an absolute machine physically, but I wouldn’t rule out an Amos appearance because neither Wanyama nor Winks is cleared to play. It’s also possible Dele or Eriksen starts in the holding role if Poch doesn’t think Amos is ready for his first Premier League start.
Now…will such a line-up be enough to beat Newcastle? It should be, but much will depend on how the hosts approach the match, as well as Spurs’ own game plan. If Newcastle sit back a bit and invite pressure, then Spurs will have to ensure they adjust their possession-based game appropriately. We’ve got great crossers of a ball and a massive center-forward in Llorente, but we’ll need to actually feed him the ball in the air to take advantage of it. If on the other hand, Newcastle play more cavalier due to having home-field advantage, Spurs can favor a counter-attacking approach that utilizes the pace of Son and Lucas to strike in behind.
The Key Battles
Three matchups are crucial to me. Firstly, with the injury to Florian Lejeune, the matchup of Harry Kane or Llorente versus Jamaal Lascelles and Fabian Schar/Ciaran Clark. Clark has the advantage of working with Benitez for the previous two years, but he isn’t a ball-playing defender and can be a bit error-prone. On the other hand, Schar is that ball-playing defender, but has only 2 matches in a Newcastle shirt under his belt. If Schar starts, his relationship with Lascelles may make all the difference.
The second match-up is in midfield. Whoever wins the Dier/Dele vs Shelvey/Diame match-up can affect the match. If Dier and Dele are able to keep Shelvey and Diame at bay, it may be a frustrating afternoon for the Toon. If Shelvey can find the space to play smart short and long passes, Newcastle may find themselves in the thick of the fight. If Tottenham can unnerve Shelvey, either via the card or with displays of errant passes, Ki can come in to dispel. This is a pivotal area and the most winnable of the three fronts.
If Kieran Trippier is not expected to start against Newcastle, the likely deputy at right-back is Kyle Walker-Peters, a young right back with solid potential. That said, Christian Atsu was able to have a good game against him last year. While I’m sure he’s made progress since then, he will be facing Kenedy this year, a player who is much better and more creative than Atsu. If Kenedy is on-form he can terrorize Tottenham’s right back, so Kenedy vs Walker-Peters is my last choice for a battle to keep an eye on.
For me, it’s going to be Llorente/Kane vs Fabian Schar, Rafa Benitez’s newest centerback recruit. Schar’s been a player I’ve kept an eye on since, yes, discovering him years ago on a FIFA manager mode run (c’mon, we’ve all done it). Both in-game and in the real world for his former club Hoffenheim, the Swiss international brings a pace and intelligence to his centerback play that has become much more fashionable for defenders in recent years. I think he’s a great signing for Newcastle that should partner well with the more physically-dominant Lascelles.
The interesting point with this match-up is that it changes so drastically depending on whether it’s Kane or Llorente that Spurs play up front. Llorente presents a massive physical challenge, and on the surface his play is more aptly contained by the rough-and-tumble style of Lascelles. Still, Schar can use his intelligence to pitch in here by tracking off-the-ball runs that players like Lucas and Son will make around Llorente. By doing so, he’ll sort of indirectly counter Llorente by neutering one of the biggest advantages the Spaniard provides Spurs’ attack as a whole.
If/when Kane enters the fray on Saturday, Schar’s role will become even more pivotal. Kane is a physical threat, sure, but he’s much more dangerous in terms of creating/using space for himself. If you step off Kane, he can turn and rifle a shot past you. Llorente won’t do that, and so it’s a completely different defensive scenario. Kane is, however, similar to his Spanish counterpart in that he tends to use himself as a magnet of sorts for opposition defenses in order to open up space for Spurs’ attacking midfielders. Schar needs to recognize when Kane tries to lure him into a hasty step and instead keep his focus on which man in a given move is going to be the most dangerous as it develops.
As I mentioned in the section describing what the teams will look like, I give Newcastle a real chance in this match. Spurs won both matches last year: a 2-0 win marred by a red card to Shelvey and 1-0 win at the end of the season with not much to play for. The Toon now have the experience of top flight quality, and the tactical acumen to give Tottenham a game.
While Newcastle isn’t expected to beat a team like Spurs, we’ve beaten top sides like them in the fairly recent past. If you want to even go further, Benitez beat Spurs 5-1 with a less talented and even less inspired squad than he currently has. I can see all three outcomes playing out, but above all, I expect the score line to be close and for Newcastle to play for 90 minutes.
As for the score, I’m predicting a 1-1 draw. I don’t think Tottenham will have their usual crispness due to many players returning from World Cup who are either 1) not present or 2) forced into early action. It’s hard to envision a clean sheet for a new centre-back pairing, but I think Newcastle’s attacking chemistry will be enough to grab them a goal.
This is tougher to call than it should be, really. Spurs have a ton of World Cup players who only started training on Monday. They also have several injuries in midfield, with Lamela, Winks, and Wanyama all likely to miss the opener. A summer of little movement on the transfer front could come back to bite Poch’s side, as even if players like Kane and Verts start they certainly won’t be as sharp as their teammates who had a proper preseason. I’m pretty sure Kane isn’t even allowed to score in August, either.
Frankly, this has a disappointing 1-1 or 2-2 draw written all over it, especially given the match is away from home against a team that seems quite capable of getting a result against us. I don’t necessarily see us getting beat, because even with tired legs we have an overwhelming advantage in quality. I’m just not expecting to be inspired, and will confess I’m also morbidly curious to see the degree of backlash against Levy and the board if we fail to start the season well.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:
Newcastle writer Jeff Crum is one of Soccity’s newest additions, joining in the fall of 2017. Check out more of his work at his writer page here and be sure to follow him throughout the season for the latest on Newcastle.
Spurs writer Mike Schmidt has been with Soccity since the current iteration of the site launched. You can read more of his work at his writer page here and be sure to follow him throughout the season for the latest on Spurs.