Steve McClaren has failed as Newcastle United manager. That may appear merely an opinion, and one that is rendered understandable by a glance at the league table. Yet it is the only logical interpretation of his employers' stated objectives when he was appointed.
"Steve has been tasked to secure a top-eight finish in the Premier League and he is also heavily incentivised to try to win a cup competition," said managing director Lee Charnley in June. Thus far, Newcastle are not even on course for a top-18 finish. They won a game in a cup competition, but it was a solitary one, and came against League Two Northampton.
Newcastle’s initial aims seemed ambitious then, and look more so now, but they underline the scale of the underachievement in McClaren’s reign at St James’ Park. If there is something logical about clubs who only escape relegation on the final day of one season spending the following season battling the drop, Newcastle’s largesse means they should have spent the current campaign in the altogether safer waters of mid-table.
They have spent £80 million (Dh415.7m) over the past two transfer windows. If they go down, it will rank as the most expensive relegation of all, and thus arguably the most ignominious. Some of that spending can be seen as a corrective after years of underinvestment. Some of it was wasted, and the £13 million winger Florian Thauvin, who has already been loaned back to Marseille, has to figure on any list of the season’s worst signings.
Some was spent in the wrong departments of the team, and the failure to recruit another central defender and a first-choice left-back look particular mistakes.
But Newcastle have also acquired talented players. Georginio Wijnaldum certainly has the ability and the goalscoring record to play for the top-eight team Charnley thought they would be. Jonjo Shelvey did excel for a top-eight side, in Swansea City, last season. Chancel Mbemba has the potential to be a high-class centre-back. Aleksandar Mitrovic is temperamental and inconsistent but there are reasons why he commanded a £13 million fee. Norwich City, who have as few points as Newcastle, would love players of their calibre.
Yet recruiting players is one thing, turning them into a team another. McClaren’s task was rendered tougher by the culture of the club, which appeared rotten as owner Mike Ashley concentrated on making a profit and too many players settled for mediocrity. He has proved unable to change it.
On their day, Newcastle illustrate their talent. Sometimes, as against Bournemouth on Saturday, they are simply shambolic. Too often, they underperform and are outworked.
If a manager is supposed to implement organisation, to engineer spirit and to perm the right options from within his squad, McClaren has been found wanting too regularly. When Newcastle installed him last summer, it did not escape attention that it was his first Premier League post for nine years. The sense was that he had been tarnished for too long by his disastrous spell in charge of England.
Now the temptation is to wonder not just why he is still in charge of Newcastle but whether, when he is eventually sacked, he will manage at this level again. It is significant that many who have worked with McClaren are willing to testify he is an excellent coach, often cited among the best they have encountered. They cannot all be being diplomatic.
The corollary, however, is that it produces the conclusion that McClaren simply is not a particularly good manager. Successes have been outnumbered by failures. Whatever he does on the training field, he has been found wanting at St James’ Park in the realms of team selection, tactics and substitutions, man-management and motivation.
The Newcastle players can issue a statement saying they are behind McClaren, and they should not escape responsibility for a desperate plight, but it has come to something where, at a club owned by Ashley and featuring such a feckless group of footballers, the manager becomes the biggest problem. Yet now McClaren is.
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