So much time and energy has been spent pouring over the details of Newcastle United’s takeover by the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund (PIF), from highlighting the human rights atrocities committed by Saudi Arabia to excitable predictions about which mega-stars are within the club’s grasp, that few have stopped to question whether the plan actually makes any sense.
There is a reason why no nation looking to sportswash has done so in England since 2008, and why Qatar went to Paris Saint-Germain. There is very little room at the top of English football, where there are already six super-clubs to fit into four Champions League places – the only source of money that really differentiates Premier League wealth – and at least three clubs (Leicester City, West Ham United, and Everton) are well ahead of Newcastle in their attempts to break through.
FFP could see owners get bored
But more important even than that problem is Financial Fair Play (FFP) which, for some inexplicable reason, isn’t being talked about very much in relation to Newcastle. The days of doing a Man City or a Chelsea are over and, as the Premier League’s emergency measure to block sponsorships that involve pre-existing business relationships indicates, Newcastle will not be able to use creative accounting to get around FFP.
Newcastle reportedly have £200 million to spend to remain within FFP, and even accounting for how player amortisation affects the figures (the cost of a transfer is spread across the length of a players’ contract, and therefore split across multiple years of accounts) that is a pretty small amount in today’s market. Aston Villa spent more than that, net, in the summer just gone, while Newcastle are supposedly set to give just £50 million in January to Eddie Howe.
There is a decent chance, it would seem, that the new owners could get bored. It would take astronomical investment – the sort that would flagrantly break the rules – to come close to competing for Champions League places. Eventually, will Saudi Arabia not realise they are better off investing in a different nation’s league, where fewer teams compete for the lucrative Champions League places and a brand of domination can be created, as with PSG?
Howe is a good transitional choice…
If there is a danger of everything ending in tears, then the danger will never be higher than in these first few months. Newcastle are in genuine relegation trouble and, unless something dramatic happens under Howe, they look set to for the Championship – and a two- or three-year delay to the project.
Howe is a good manager; an intelligent coach with experience of battling relegation and with a tactical dexterity to help move Newcastle towards a more progressive system in the medium term. But time is not on his side, and Howe’s record comes with caveats.
First, the up side. Having lifted Bournemouth from League Two to the Premier League, he spent his first two seasons in the top flight playing possession football that was very much in vogue at the time.
As this style gradually faded from the Premier League – as teams like Swansea City fell away when a more aggressive style of pressing took over the division and prevented teams from so easily passing out from the back – Bournemouth recalibrated. For the final three seasons, they played a counter-attacking system in a deep-lying 4-4-2, which is most likely the way Howe will start his evolution from the defensive low ebb of the Steve Bruce era.
Howe has the capacity, then, to start in a more conservative system and move towards something more progressive, making him the ideal transitional manager. What’s more, his capacity to avoid the drop at Bournemouth in four out of five attempts is positive, as is being reunited with Ryan Fraser, Callum Wilson, and Matt Ritchie.
… but lacks the defensive coaching
But there are more negatives than positives. The atmosphere in the dressing room will not match that in the stands, with the majority of Newcastle’s players knowing they will soon be moved on and knowing that, like Nuno Espirito Santo at Tottenham, Howe was not the first choice – and isn’t seen as the long-term leader of their ambitious new owners.
It will be hard to overcome those conditions to create a fighting spirit against relegation, especially given that Howe has a very poor defensive record. His Bournemouh team never conceded fewer than 61 goals across five Premier League seasons (averaging 66), and yet this is the one area Newcastle are most in need of improvement.
Their centre-backs simply aren’t good enough while Bruce was unable to coach them with anywhere near enough detail. This is a group that needs direction at the back, having conceded more than two goals per game this season. Newcastle have just hired someone with a very poor record trying to do that.
Relegation beckons despite January signings
This could be helped in January, of course, although it is alarming that Newcastle are still yet to appoint a director of football, and considering how badly the club handled the Unai Emery affair it seems unlikely they have the expertise, or knowledge base, to make the right signings without one.
Certainly Howe won’t. His transfer record at Bournemouth was abysmal, with over £200 million spent on the likes of Jordan Ibe (£16 million), Philip Billing (£15 million), Jefferson Lerma (£25 million), and Dominic Salanke (£19 million).
Even if Newcastle get their January signings right and Howe is able to organise their defence in the middle of a hectic winter schedule – pretty big ‘if’s – the Magpies will struggle to finish above three other teams in a very tough year.
Watford and Norwich City are in trouble, but it’s hard to see who else Newcastle can rise above. Aston Villa should be fine with Steven Gerrard in charge, Burnley always click into gear eventually, while Leeds United and Southampton are back on the way up. Brentford are arguably the only team potentially in trouble, although their strong start to the season suggests they will get 40 points.
There is little reason to believe, in other words, that Newcastle will avoid the drop. And if that’s the case, Howe will likely be relieved of his duties before the season is out.