On Sunday, four days before the anniversary of last season’s Premier League relegation, Newcastle capped off an impressive redemption tour of a season with a 3-0 win over Barnsley to nip the second division championship from Brighton and Hove Albion and provide an exclamation point on the side’s immediate return to top flight football.
As exciting and positive as this year has been (particularly in light of the past few years), the season is now behind us, and it’s time to look ahead and speculate on the offseason and season ahead. Staying in the Premier League following next season is far from a guarantee, as five of the last twelve promoted sides (not including the current season) have gone back down to the Championship the next season. However, the club and its fans have the benefit of experience with promotion, having earned a spot in the Premiership in 2010 following a year’s absence. With that, let’s all put on our Jonas Gutierrez shirts and look back at the last time Newcastle returned to the top flight.
The 2010-2011 Newcastle side, like many successful newly-promoted clubs, succeeded primarily due to two factors: smart use of the transfer market and an established team identity. The summer transfer window saw Newcastle bring in Cheick Tioté from Belgian side Twente for only £3.5 million; Tioté would go on to finish no worse than third in tackles per game in any of his first five seasons with the club and score this legendary goal. Additionally, the team succeeded in keeping core members through the 2010 summer transfer window; in that window, Newcastle lost only Nicky Butt’s 17 appearances and Fabrice Pancrate’s 16 appearances from the previous season. In January, it took a record £35 million to move Andy Carroll to Liverpool.
More importantly than transfer market activity, though, was the extent to which the side committed to a system of play emphasizing its strengths. The 2010-2011 season saw Newcastle finish comfortably in 12th place with the league’s 9th best goal differential.
Many of the pieces in the 2010-2011 preferred starting XI and Newcastle’s current side are similar - for instance, both featured young, gifted right backs growing into their roles after a season with the club (Danny Simpson and DeAndre Yedlin) and both featured leadership and creativity in central midfield (Kevin Nolan and Jonjo Shelvey). That said, with the exceptions of Jose Enrique at left back and Club Legend Jonas Gutierrez™ on the left wing, the squad currently being fielded is more talented than the group from seven years ago, a group that still managed to reach mid-table the season following promotion.
Newcastle was able to succeed by leaning on its biggest strength: a talented spine running through the middle of the field. Mike Williamson, Steven Taylor and Fabricio Coloccini formed a solid rotation in central defense; Tioté led the team in tackles and finished second in interceptions while completing a team-high 87.1% of his passes; Kevin Nolan provided leadership and ball-moving ability along with 12 goals; and Andy Carroll scored 11 goals and won an unnatural 7.1 aerial duels per game before being sold to Liverpool. To complement Andy Carroll’s league-best ability in the air, Chris Hughton deployed Joey Barton on the wing following Hatem Ben Arfa’s early injury (never forget) to allow for Carroll to take advantage of Barton’s set piece and crossing ability, a move that earned Barton a team-best nine assists.
The Premier League is a more difficult league now than it was in 2010, particularly lower in the table - teams like Stoke City and West Ham would not have been able to draw talent like Shaqiri or hold on to players like Manuel Lanzini half a decade ago, but the influx of television and sponsorship money have leveled the transfer market and made the Premiership unquestionably deeper. I’ve also been a Newcastle supporter for too long to write off catastrophes beyond our control - every time I see a “Wenger Out” sign, I end up waking in a cold sweat the following night thinking about Rafa holding up a red and white scarf at the Emirates this summer. However, most of the pieces required to stay in top flight are already Tyneside, and discipline in both the transfer market and team identity should lead to us once again celebrating a successful season come next May.