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Newcastle (Number one in an occasional series..)
Newcastle are an odd club, and had a suitably strange season last time around. Having appointed win-ugly specialist Sam Allardyce, the new owner didn’t give him time to get to the winning bit of that, and attack-crazy Geordie messiah Kevin Keegan returned to great acclaim. Keegan started slow, but eventually hit upon an imaginative 4-3-3 with Micahel Owen playing deep off Martins and Viduka. What’s strange about that it that in his first spell at Newcastle Keegan’s side lit up the league with open, fast, uninhibited attacking football that ripped teams apart and almost took them to the title. And in the squad now are several excellent wingers (among the best in the league) - Damien Duff (who may or not return to his blistering best after last year’s injury), the supremely explosive Charles N’Zogbia, and the clever, accurate James Milner – all of whom were left out of that 4-3-3. Keegan’s never shown much of a tactical bent in the past, either, so it was a remarkable development altogether.
He’s still got exceptional motivational chops, though, and showed them in a lot of “I never realised how terrific Michael Owen was before now” comments that I don’t think he believes, but which seem to have had the desired effect (that effect being Owen arriving late on a lot of crosses to stick them away). And this after he (perfectly accurately) criticised Owen's link play when he was England manager a few years ago.
The squad is also in strange shape, with a truly great goalkeeper (Given), a fine understudy (Steve Harper, who I think should be in England squads), poor centre-backs (Steven Taylor is loved by the support for being a committed, macho blood-and-thunderer, but he cost them goals last year; he’s like John Terry with much worse judgement), the superbly athletic Habib Beye at RB, and absolutely terrible centre midfielders. Watching their FA Cup defeat last year, it was clear that part of the reason those excellent wide players weren’t able to penetrate was that Butt and Smith (playing in the centre that day) were getting the ball to them too slowly and in bad positions, so they continually faced two defenders and couldn’t move onto the ball at pace (it’s like the difference between a QB throwing to a receiver in stride or throwing late and behind him). If they got Xabi Alonso in (not that it seems likely) his passing quality would unlock that threat from wide. Alan Smith is not a premiership player in anything but desire, and the sooner Newcastle realise that and get rid of him the better they’ll be.
To date, their transfer in has been Gutierrez, who I know nothing about, but who is described as a winger. If that’s true, then maybe KK is hoping to one day field a team of 10 wingers. They're also clearly pursuing several defenders, which is a prudent move. If they can upgrade their centre midfield, they will be top half, and if they can’t they’ll be very unpredictable and a lot will depend on how well Keegan maintains their confidence.
EDIT - and in the last couple of days midfielder Joey Barton has been released from prison, and Keegan has said he's giving him another chance, which sounds commendably fair but he only joined the club from Man City after assaulting a team-mate, so it's not as if he hasn't had chances before. It's all extremely unsavoury, and especially so at a club that's had real problems with player discipline in the recent past.