If when you see the Newcastle United team that lines up against West Ham you think it has a very familiar look about it, well, there are very good reasons for why that would be.
Rafa Benitez was given the job back in summer 2016 of preparing a team and squad to get instant promotion back to the Premier League.
The Spaniard making clear that it was a case of preparing one team / squad for that challenge, then needing major work done as quickly as possible to transform that team / squad into a very different Premier League one.
Not possible of course to change the entire squad as soon as promotion secured, BUT over the course of two or three years, the obvious need for the vast majority of that promoted team / squad to have been moved on and an upgrade brought in.
Mike Ashley having given his assurances to Rafa Benitez that he would be backed in building these two very different teams / squads.
Looking back five years ago at that 2016/17 promotion season, these are the ten Newcastle United players who made most Championship starts:
Dummett (44), Lascelles (41), Ritchie (40), Shelvey (38), Darlow (34), Clark (34), Gouffran (33), Hayden (28), Diame (27), Gayle (26).
Quite remarkably, eight of the ten are still at Newcastle United, the only exceptions Diame and Gouffran, who are now aged 34 and 35 respectively.
Even more remarkably, the vast majority of these eight who have remained, have also received new contracts or had contract extensions triggered in recent times.
This has ensured that Newcastle United have a rapidly ageing squad and as things stand, over half the senior first team players will be in their thirties by the time the 2021/22 season is completed.
Whether those players, this Newcastle squad, will still be in the Premier League come May 2022, is now looking more and more in the balance. I don’t think many / any Newcastle United fans believed that the Mike Ashley ‘plan’ was solely to retain almost all of the existing NUFC players and not allow any investment on new players whatsoever. However, day 54 of the transfer window and not a single signing, only two weeks to the new season, the situation is desperate with all of the other 19 Premier League clubs having signed at least one player, with indeed all of Newcastle’s most likely relegation rivals having made real substantial investment to try and improve their playing strength.
So for starters, we have Dummett, Lascelles, Ritchie, Shelvey, Darlow, Hayden, Gayle and Clark who were key players in that promotion five seasons ago. Whilst the likes of Sean Longstaff, Kendall Watts and Freddie Woodman were also at Newcastle United back in 2016. Jacob Murphy was also playing in the Championship that season but for Norwich City.
This gamble from Mike Ashley is simply ridiculous, to refuse to allow any kind of proper investment in the playing staff and an insistence on relying on the same old players to be the backbone of yet another survival bid, is a strategy doomed to eventually fail.
It is almost as though part of the ‘plan’ is that if Mike Ashley does indeed succeed in relegating Newcastle United for a third time, he can be confident that he has a ready prepared Championship promotion side already in pace. However, it was very different when this group of players were generally in their prime back in 2016, now you are looking at 30+ players who are seeing more and more injury / fitness issues.
Dwight Gayle was given a three year contract this summer that takes him up to almost his 35th birthday, yet Steve Bruce only gave him four PL starts last season. It is almost as though Bruce has little (no?) say in what happens regarding signing and selling players. Gayle scored 23 goals despite only 26 Championship starts in 2016/17, he wouldn’t be capable of doing that as a 32 year old next season if NUFC were in the second tier.
The failure to address and properly improve the Newcastle United squad since promotion, is indicative of the way the whole club operates. A club under Mike Ashley that is stuck in a rut with no ambition, capable at any time of drifting to disaster with yet another relegation.