Philippe Coutinho and Jeff Hendrick are rarely mentioned in the same breath. Newcastle United’s summer has encompassed talk of signing one of the most expensive players in history. Instead, the first midfielder they brought in was the unglamorous Irishman on a free transfer.
That is not to mock Hendrick, a versatile performer who Burnley had hoped to keep and who, somewhat surreally, had been tipped to join AC Milan, but it is an illustration of the different worlds Newcastle have occupied. Rather than untold millions, they are ending up spending an altogether smaller amount on Hendrick, reserve goalkeeper Mark Gillespie, Callum Wilson and, probably, two players from relegated clubs, in Ryan Fraser and Jamal Lewis.
Factor in persuading Matty Longstaff to sign a new deal and Steve Bruce seems to have made a comparatively small budget go a long way this summer, just as he made the most of limited resources on the pitch. For months, Newcastle could imagine an alternative world of more lavish outlay and greater ambition, perhaps under a more fashionable manager, but the end of the takeover bid involving the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund rendered it likely Mike Ashley’s unpopular ownership will continue. Even if other suitors do succeed in buying United, any deal would be too late to be transformative immediately.
And so Newcastle face another year of life in limbo. Two very different statements were true last season: that Bruce did laudably, perhaps as well as Rafa Benitez had done in the previous two top-flight seasons, and that, for the most part, the football was awful.
They were all but safe by March when, until the shackles came off in summer, Newcastle were the division’s joint lowest scorers. They finished the campaign with the least possession and no one ended with fewer shots from inside the box. Allan Saint-Maximin’s mesmeric solo runs aside, there was little in the way of excitement and, if Newcastle’s reputation as historic entertainers can be exaggerated, their ultra-defensive approach jarred nonetheless. Bruce conjured memorable results – wins over Manchester United and Chelsea and a draw with Manchester City – but they were improbable outcomes, secured against the run of play.
A Geordie’s dream job was a thankless task. If it gets easier now, it will be only be if he has recruited well. Lewis represents a sensible addition at left-back, replacing the older and borrowed Danny Rose. Fraser’s ineffectiveness last season was a reason for Bournemouth’s demise, but only Eden Hazard recorded more assists in 2018/19. Between them, Fraser and Wilson combined for 12 goals then. It is simple to anoint the striker the most significant signing.
Newcastle season ratings
His 15-game drought last season was another reason Bournemouth perished but Wilson averaged a Premier League goal every 233 minutes over five seasons for the Cherries. Newcastle can savour such statistics. Joelinton cost £40 million (Dh195m) and delivered two league goals, the same number as no fewer than four of Newcastle’s phalanx of centre-backs who contributed in both boxes. If the Brazilian was starved of service at times and miscast as a striker when he would rather have a supporting role, he was a chastening failure nonetheless.
Newcastle’s negativity felt a consequence of their impotence. A summer switch to 4-2-3-1 offered more intent and feels a more feasible formation if Fraser and Wilson can dovetail with Miguel Almiron and Saint-Maximin.
But last winter’s rearguard actions felt a microcosm of the campaign. No one made more saves in the Premier League last season than Martin Dubravka and no defence made more clearances. It scarcely feels a failsafe formula, but if safety is the prime aim again as Newcastle aim to survive Ashley’s regime, a few more goals would help Bruce win over the sceptics.