Newcastle United squad analysis: Steve Bruce's main strengths and weaknesses ahead of the Premier League season

As far as summer transfer windows go, 2020 has been crazy even by Newcastle United standards.
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A window which started with the promise of Saudi riches and the end of Mike Ashley, is seemingly ending with the Sports Direct tycoon still in charge and having, for the first time in 13 years, woken up to the gravity of the situation at St James’s Park.

Is he protecting his asset with some belated spending or is something else, something more secretive, at play behind the scenes? The next few weeks and months will be enlightening on that front. But what is certain is that Newcastle United, for what feels like the first season in a long while, look to be heading into the new campaign in a stronger position than they were in the last.

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Credit where it’s due for that, of course, but this summer also brings to the fore the absolute lack of due care paid to Newcastle United for much of the time spent under Ashley’s wing.

NORWICH, ENGLAND - JUNE 27: Jamal Lewis of Norwich City looks on during the FA Cup Quarter Final match between Norwich City and Manchester United at Carrow Road on June 27, 2020 in Norwich, England. (Photo by Joe Giddens/Pool via Getty Images)NORWICH, ENGLAND - JUNE 27: Jamal Lewis of Norwich City looks on during the FA Cup Quarter Final match between Norwich City and Manchester United at Carrow Road on June 27, 2020 in Norwich, England. (Photo by Joe Giddens/Pool via Getty Images)
NORWICH, ENGLAND - JUNE 27: Jamal Lewis of Norwich City looks on during the FA Cup Quarter Final match between Norwich City and Manchester United at Carrow Road on June 27, 2020 in Norwich, England. (Photo by Joe Giddens/Pool via Getty Images)

Here our writer Liam Kennedy picks apart the different departments at United and assesses what’s changed and what to expect in all areas of the pitch.

Goalkeeper – from a position of strength…

It seems strange to start in a position which is arguably the only one which United are heading into the campaign in a weaker position than before. This is, of course, little fault of their own.

Martin Dubravka, Newcastle’s player of the season last year, will miss at least the first six weeks of the season through injury – a massive blow for a side who so heavily relied upon the Slovakian to remain a Premier League club through 2019/20.

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And while on paper they have a more than able deputy in Karl Darlow – he was number one through most of the Championship season and for periods in the Premier League – pre-season, by his standards, has been a bit of a disaster.

Last season when called upon in the FA Cup Darlow produced the goods, looked composed, made saves. Look at the Boro mauling of a few weeks back and he was anything but, flapping at shots, with poor positioning. He’ll really need to improve or he could find himself out of a slot in the starting XI, with United signing former Motherwell No1 Mark Gillespie, ranked as one of the top performing goalies in the Scottish Premiership last season.

Right-back – Three options but any good enough?

Newcastle United have THREE right-backs in their squad ahead of the new season – and it’s difficult to make a case for any to definitively be the guaranteed starter on Saturday.

Perhaps strongest placed is Javier Manquillo.

New contract in the bag, quick and generally reliable, the Spaniard is probably the best bet of the trio, but there’s not a lot in it.

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DeAndre Yedlin, speedy and attack-minded, is too questionable defensively to be a reliable option and with just a year left could be shown the door.

Emil Krafth, on the other hand, has done absolutely nothing to suggest he will be good enough to make it in the Premier League.

Left-back – New boy goes straight in

Jamal Lewis walks straight into the United line up, whether Steve Bruce plays a four or a five-man backline.

Young and athletic, expect to see the Northern Ireland international bombing down the left all season for the Magpies, likely forming a dangerous partnership with Allan Saint-Maximin in front of him.

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One weakness of Lewis, according to those who’ve watched him more than I, is in some of his defensive work, particularly in the air but with Liverpool eyeing a deal earlier in the summer and Jurgen Klopp a fan, he is likely to be a BIG improvement on what was already on United’s books.

Paul Dummett, when fit, can offer a more defensive option in this department.

Centre-back – A need for improvement?

Improvement? At centre-half? Surely not!

Well, take a closer look.

Jamaal Lascelles as skipper is an instant selection when fit, so too is Federico Fernandez who, for me, is the best allround defender in the squad.

Ciaran Clark is a proper central defender in a four, but after that there are question marks – particularly when applying Bruce’s likely formation to the personnel.

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Florian Lejeune and Fabian Schar have big question marks over their heads.

Lejeune is, at best, a Rolls Royce defender. But during his time at United, we’re yet to really see that in anywhere near enough of a consistent basis.

With two major injuries in his time on Tyneside, and his notorious slowness at getting up to speed on the park, could his time be done?

The same could be said of Schar, now well into the final year of his United deal.

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Twelve months ago you wouldn’t have even considered his exit, now he looks like a piece of the puzzle that just doesn’t fit. Injury may have prevented him being shown the exit door already this summer, you’d suspect.

Central midfield – Much of the same

A central midfield two of Isaac Hayden and Jonjo Shelvey is something United have been looking to improve upon since they were promoted under Rafa Benitez. But here we are, in 2020/21, and it could well be the same duo who hold the central positions in the opening weeks of the campaign.

Hayden is steady as an energetic midfielder who doesn’t mind a tackle, while Shelvey is Mr Unpredictable, but could prove crucial when tasked with feeding the forward improvements made this summer.

Beyond that it would be surprise if Bruce does not want to get new boy Jeff Hendrick into the side in this slot, or a little further forward. And Matty Longstaff is also an option with a real point to prove after all of the contract wrangling which blighted the final months of his debut campaign.

Attacking midfielder – A toss up between two totally different options

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Sean Longstaff and Miguel Almiron will go head-to-head, you’d imagine, to secure the one slot as an attacking midfielder, support to the frontman.

And both players offer totally different options.

While Longstaff is a player who can link midfield with attack seamlessly with his ability to find spaces with ease, he also possesses the knack of arriving in the box at the right time to get on the end of things. He can score all kinds of goals.

Almiron last season improved his quality in front of goal and was probably the form player in the United squad from December through to lockdown.

He probably gets the nod over Longstaff – this weekend at least – because of his ability to break at pace away from home, but don’t be surprised if Longstaff, if he can stay fit, pushes him all the way this campaign.

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Hendrick can also fit in here, if needed, as he did so impressively the season Burnley finished seventh in the Premier League.

Right-wing – Looking a lot stronger than before

The addition of Ryan Fraser on the right really is game-changer for Bruce.

But the issue the manager has, is that the Scotland international is not fit enough yet to start.

Fraser will bring quality delivery into the box and pace on the break. His direct running is also a boost to side who look set to dazzle on the break.

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Matt Ritchie is still on the books but expect him to depart. Jacob Murphy is likely to get an opportunity as things stand, but don’t be too surprised if he is another player who is shown the door when loan offers arrive towards the end of the window.

Left-wing – ASM plus a square peg?

Allan Saint-Maximin fills this slot every day of the week and on weekends.

But the battle behind that is an interesting, with Christian Atsu likely to be allowed to leave – Celtic are interested – and Joelinton likely to be used as a square peg in a round hole.

The frontman hasn’t been anywhere near good enough as a No9 – and is likely to lose that this week – but will be asked to slot in off the front or on the left, most likely from the bench initially.

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Will that free him of the pressure to perform? This is a big season for the player who is regarded by many as a £40 million flop.

Striker – Just what the doctor ordered...

Newcastle United have been crying out for the permanent signing of a proven Premier League striker for years. They’ve not had one since they returned to the Premier League – remember, Salomon Rondon was only a loan deal.

Callum Wilson will provide hold up play, pace and the ability score goals. He will work defenders, open up gaps for others and get on the end of things, operating in all the right areas. The best use of Joelinton could be to tell him to just watch Wilson’s movement intently.

Behind that United have a fit and firing Andy Carroll as well, with his return to the goals in pre-season, but lack Dwight Gayle as a back up.

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Yoshinori Muto is a bit of a non-starter but could be needed in the opening weeks of the campaign.

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