The 2012-13 Edition of the Barclay's Premier League kicks off in three days' time. Newcastle United were done no favors with their early fixtures (as we all know) in addition to being given no relief through movement of their Europa League play-off first leg v. Atromitos FC. Will the Magpies be able to recapture the form that led to their 5th place league finish last term?
Heading into the 2011-12 Premier League, Newcastle were tipped by many pundits to be square in the relegation scrap, and the early season liquidation of Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton would have done very little to have improved our looks in the eyes of the talking heads. History shows us that we were just fine with the replacement parts that were brought in... but perhaps the most cogent point regarding the start of the 2011-12 season is that we had nearly nothing in terms of injury at the very beginning of the season. It does not seem that we will be in a similar position this year with the likes of Yohan Cabaye, Cheik Tiote and Fabricio Coloccini reportedly already nursing niggling injuries. This may not bode well staring a the 2012-13 Europa League square in the face.
The Europa League and Quick Turnarounds:
If you take the entire Europa League schedule, lay it over Newcastle's PL schedule and take a decent long look at it, you come away with one major conclusion: Hey, it could be worse! Living in a quick turnaround world this season, Newcastle could surely have a much tougher time with these turnarounds than what they have. These following numbers will take into account all potential Europa League matches up to and including the final. I do not expect us to factor in all of these matches and as such it is a purely hypothetical look at what could happen this season. Here are the clubs that we play 2 days after (potentially) contesting a Europa League match:
Chelsea away (8-25 following playoff leg 2 v. Atromitos)
Norwich home (9-22 following Group stage matchday 1 if we are still involved)
West Brom home (10-27 following Group stage matchday 3)
West Ham home (11-10 following Group stage matchday 4)
Southampton away (11-24 following Group stage matchday 5)
Fulham away (12-8 following group stage matchday 6)
The unaccounted for match to this point is matchday 2- with Manchester United home looming 3 days following.
Living in fantasy land (and still purely hypothetically), there would be:
Southampton home (2-23 following Round of 32 2nd leg)
Stoke home (3-9 following Round of 16 1st leg)
Wigan away (3-16 following Round of 16 2nd leg)
Fulham home (4-6 following Quarter-Final 1st leg)
scum home (4-13 following Quarter-Final 2nd leg)
Liverpool home (4-27 following Semi-Final 1st leg)
West Ham away (5-4 following Semi-Final 2nd leg)
Of course, none of this accounts for potential League or FA Cup fixtures.
Priorities and the Quest For Relevance:
Alan Pardew has already been on record as saying that our priority will be on the league this year. On a very emotional fan-based level we are likely to balk at this, particularly in light of a now 57-year wait for a domestic trophy triumph of any sort. Through a thread we had the other, day, however, I went through and looked at FA Cup winners and runners-up since the establishment of the Premier League. The list is dominated by... you guessed it. The Sky6. Over the years since Newcastle United tasted success at the domestic level, there have surely been flashes of awesome. The Entertainers. Wor Bob. One or two or four years during which we feel like we've finally got it solved and have turned the corner. History shows, however, that this has not ever been the case. While it may suck to resign oneself to writing off the cups, it may in fact be the short-term solution to facilitating the long-term solution to our silverware drought. Identifying the cart (silverware) and the horse (establishment as a perennial league contender) is going to be vital to keeping the next several years (and this year in particular) in proper perspective. A proper run of high league finishes and the European competition (preferably Champions League) that goes alongside is going to be the only way to establish ourselves as the club we want to be and ultimately join the Sky6 in the FA Cup club.
How About the Schedule Minus The Europa League?
Starting the season home v. Spurs and away v. Chelsea is perhaps not the friendly ease into the new season start that you might have hoped for... but there is a small solace in the fact that the months of September and October largely miss Sky6 clubs (with the exception of Manchester United October 7th). With one notable exception we have avoided (for the most part) the Stretch O' Dooms that loomed so largely in last year's fixture list. Of course that exception would be the busiest non-Europa League affected section of the fixture list - the Boxing Day program. That stretch starts on December 26 (predictably) with Manchester United away, Arsenal away three days later and Everton at home on January 1st of 2013. Beyond that, the fixture list is relatively friendly with the Spurs/Chelsea back to back appearing again at the beginning of February. In and of itself, this year's slate looks much less daunting than last year's did. That doesn't mean I look at every game and go "Oooh... we might lose that one."... but there is some manner of relief that we don't have a Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs, Everton, Liverpool stretch or anything similar.
Have We Improved The Squad Enough To Build On Last Season's Success?
I have had to try very very hard to adjust my ideas on this particular question. I was very firm in my conviction that the club absolutely needed to reinforce the first team Center Back and Striker positions, and I really feel that these are still very present needs. Douglas is still outstanding and still may just join the Toon when his citizenship issues are resolved (Initial reports said that he would have his Dutch citizenship in late July... since then it has shifted to a random unannounced date in August), so it's hard to make any sweeping statements on the relative success of this transfer window. I honestly believe that, however, there is some method to the "Buy ALL the midfielders" business model, and there's a very real possibility that we may start seeing it take effect as soon as Saturday. The flexibility through the center of midfield is just absolutely immense. If Alan Pardew wants to play a very negative, defensive style (not that he necessarily would), he can pack the center midfield with Cheik Tiote, Vurnon Anita and Gael Bigirimana, for instance. If Alan Pardew wants to play an absolute balls out attacking style, he can pack the center midfield with Yohan Cabaye, Romain Amalfitano and Mehdi Abeid, Dan Gosling or Haris Vuckic. The flexibility that has been afforded through the addition of Amalfitano and Bigi could well prove to be the underrated victory in the Premier League this transfer window. Beyond that, the arrivals of Sylvain Marveaux back into the ranks of the healthy and Shane Ferguson into a (presumably) more solid role in the first team could spell a much more adventurous, ambitious wing style in addition. If a Blogger Of Very Little Brain such as myself can see the different permutations of lineup and tactics running through my mind like a stock video of a computer working (you know the kind, where the 0s and 1s are shown flickering back and forth like crazy superimposed over a shot of a computer or a brain or some other such stereotypical shot... you know the kind I'm talking about.), then you absolutely know that Alan Pardew, who has shown a certain degree of tactical acumen in his time at the helm, is just absolutely giddy at the flexibility he's got in MF now.
NOW- It still remains that we are lacking solid depth at the CB position. As things stand, if any of Fabricio Coloccini, Steven Taylor or Mike Williamson get injured, we are going to have to hope that one of Curtis Good or James Tavernier are ready to stand in and perform at top level. I feel relatively safe in saying that if one of our top three CBs get injured, you can almost instantly ship off any hopes you have for an extended run in any of the cup competitions. I'm not saying that we'll go all Blackburn Rovers style and "forfeit" a competition by playing a side made up of random people pulled off of the street in order to "concentrate on the league" (How'd that all go, by the way, Steve?), but I'm saying that you might see a large number of reserves and Academy players in the cups at that point.
ALSO- The ACoN playoff match is going to be massive for determining where our squad sits. As you all know, Senegal (featuring our very own Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse) play the Ivory Coast (featuring our very own Cheik Tiote) for one remaining spot in the African Cup of Nations. As things stand at this point, we are considerably better situated to absorb the loss of Cheik Tiote than we are the loss of Double Demba. I don't think that I can actively root against one side or the other here, but I know which side I will be more prepared to accept their loss in this match. I am concerned that we are pulling out of the striker market this summer with the active campaign that has been started in order to build up Adam Campbell's striking prowess... We do have Shola, and if he can rekindle the fire through European competition that he had when he was a youngster alongside Alan Shearer, then it may just be enough to carry us through in the absence of our Senegalese Strike Force, but it's going to be hard to count on that occurring. Perhaps selling off Leon Best and not renewing Peter Lovenkrands were decisions made slightly in haste. Granted, we did make a decent run at Luuk de Jong, we would have hoped for a plan B that would have been right there in the wings just in case de Jong went to, say, Borussia Moenchengladbach instead of coming to Newcastle.
Where Do We Finish In The League?
I have very scientifically gone through and tried to project results for each match over the season. My high water mark was 79 points, which would have put us third place given last year's point totals (which will obviously not be the same this year... but it's just a frame of reference). My low water mark was 49 points... so the good news is that by the conventional 40-points-makes-you-safe metric, I don't see us being sucked into the relegation scrap. 49 points would have put us in tenth place based on last year's point totals, so I suppose I can say this:
Based on my projections, Newcastle United will enjoy a top-half finish (of some sort) this season.