As we move ever closer to the transfer window, it will be instructive to examine the different rules that govern squad construction and how they affect the current state of Newcastle. First up is the 25-man squad limit, closely related to the rule commonly known as the "Home-grown Player Rule."
This rule is widely misunderstood. Ask the common man on the street, and they'll likely tell you that the rule states that each club must have a certain number of English-born players. In fact, the player's nationality has nothing to do with it, though it is true that most home-grown players will end up being English as a result of the way the system works.
Here are the actual rules:
- Each team is limited to a 25-man squad for all Premier League matches (the rules don't apply to FA or League Cup matches; we'll deal with European competition in a moment). This squad is named at the end of each transfer window
- Players under 21 do not count toward the 25-man limit.
- Of the 25 players named, at least 8 must be considered "home-grown." This means that they have spent at least 36 months affiliated with the FA or Welsh FA prior to their 21st birthday. In other words, they have to have been in the academy (or on the full squad) of any Football League team for 3 years, "irrespective of nationality or age."
- If a team does not field 8 home-grown players in their squad, their allotment will be reduced by the number of players they lack. In other words, if they only name 6 home-grown players, they will only be allowed 23 players. An easy way to think about this is that teams are allowed to have up to 17 players over the age of 21 that do not qualify as home-grown.
- The requirements for the Europa League, which Newcastle will be competing in during the 2012-13 season, are slightly more stringent. At least 4 of the 8 required home grown players must have spent their 36 months at the club itself, rather than just any club.
So, where does Newcastle stand? Let's take a look at the club before any transfers take place, and following that we will make allowances for possible departures, etc.
Newcastle United Players Over the Age of 21
* = Qualifies as Home Grown for the Premier League
** = Qualifies as Home Grown for both the Premier League and the Europa League
Hatem Ben Arfa
Shane Ferguson and James Tavernier are both currently 20, but they will be 21 by January 1, which is the cut-off date.
Newcastle currently have 28 players that qualify for the 25-man squad, but it's important to remember that loaned out players do not count, and there will certainly be departures. Currently, 16 of those players count as home grown in the eyes of the FA, while 7 of those are home grown as far as UEFA are concerned. We can reasonably expect the following players to depart, either permanently or on loan: Harper, Guthrie, Lovenkrands, Smith, Forster, and Xisco.* 4 of those 6 are home grown, which would push the totals down to 22, 12, and 5.
*There are others that certainly look like they're on the way out the door, but let's deal in almost certainties for now.
In other words, Newcastle are doing just fine when it comes to compliance with the Home Grown Player Rule. They are well over the 8 player limit, and while the "graduation" of first team contenders to 21 and older status is generally seen as a bad thing, in this case it actually helps Newcastle out as they gain two players that will satisfy the eligibility requirements for the Europa League. There is not currently any mandate for the club to go buy any home grown players, and in fact their reliance on those players means they can afford to let some go, if circumstances dictate (whereas a club with only 8 home grown players is forced to hang onto those 8, whether they are capable of cracking the top XI or not).
Let's remove the players we think are leaving and come up with a crude depth chart. This way, we'll see what the positions of need are. I'm going with a 4-4-2, because Hatem Ben Arfa can play either right wing or the right side of the front line, which makes it pretty easy to name eleven starters regardless of formation.
Jak Alnwick (U-21)
Rumors have Krul leaving for Chelsea for 10 million pounds, but I'm choosing to ignore them for now. If he leaves, Forster goes to the top and Celtic will have to get over it. There's no reason to keep a third goalkeeper in the squad, since one can always come from the U-21 ranks. Elliot's presence (and contract, which has 4 years left) makes Krul and Forster an either/or situation.
Danny Simpson recently turned down a new contract, so it looks like he may be on the way out. Santon would be the logical internal replacement, but a hole is opened up either way. Perchinho has been a revelation, and Ryan Taylor is great for set pieces, but I'd feel a bit more comfortable if some outside help were brought in, and besides - they might be needed elsewhere.
This is the part where we hope that Steven Taylor is healthy and pray that cover is on the way anyway. Several fullbacks filled in here admirably last season, but those were short-term solutions. Center back has to be a priority.
See the note on RB. To be honest, I'm completely fine with a starting lineup that includes both Simpson and Santon, but that assumes that Simpson stays and that both remain healthy.
There are a few players listed elsewhere that could fill in in a pinch, but these are the only natural right wingers we've got at the moment. That's why Gabriel Obertan isn't going anywhere, along with there being no market for him. I still believe that he can be a fine contributor as well.
Another position of need. It's entirely possible that somebody will drop a £20 million bid for Tiote, which is Andy Carroll money for a midfielder. Even if he stays, Cheik has been plagued by leg injuries and is always a threat for a suspension anyway. Part of Danny Guthrie's brilliance is that he filled in so capably in the holding role despite being more attack-minded. Hoping for more of the same from a different member of the squad is foolhardy.
Haris Vuckic (U-21)
Mehdi Abeid (U-21)
This is maybe the strongest position on the pitch, which is Reason #673 Eden Hazard is not coming to Newcastle. Sorry.
Sammy Ameobi (U-21)
Hypothetical: You are Mike Ashley. Sylvain Marveaux has played out of his mind in the League Cup and in a few Premier League matches. On January 31, a £15 million bid for Jonas comes across your desk. Do you pull the trigger?
Ba and Cisse each went on goal-scoring binges at different times (to be fair to Cisse, he wasn't here when Ba was doing all the scoring). Wouldn't it be nice if they both spread their scoring out a bit over a full campaign? On an unrelated note, there's going to be another Africa Cup of Nations this season. I know cognitively that the switch to odd years was not made in an attempt to screw over Newcastle United, but...
Newcastle are not in a position where they have to go out of their way to buy home-grown players, nor do they have to take any drastic steps to retain their own HGPs. Practically, they can add 3 additional players without having to sell anybody (financial considerations aside). They have urgent needs at center back and full back, and they could use some depth at holding midfielder. (Positional needs can of course change dramatically if important players are sold.) Almost every position could use some depth pieces if a deep run in the Europa League is to be made. That help will probably need to come in the form of U-21 players, which is why purchases of players like Mehdi Abeid that receive little fanfare are so important. Please don't ever leave us, Graham Carr.