“I’m signing the players that I can, not the players that I want.”
That was what Rafa Benitez said last summer.
There’s a big difference between signing who you can and who you want.
Fast forward to this summer, and Benitez is again signing the players he can at Newcastle United – and they aren’t necessarily the ones he originally wanted.
The club yesterday completed its fourth summer signing.
Defender Fabian Schar – who impressed playing for Switzerland at this summer’s World Cup finals – signed a three-year deal at St James’s Park after the club activated his £3million release clause in his contract at Spanish club Deportivo La Coruna.
Mainz striker Yoshinori Muto, a Japan international, is set to join Schar at the club in a £9million deal ahead of tomorrow’s friendly against Porto in Portugal (8pm kick-off).
Benitez, in his own words, is having to “wheel and deal”. He has to sell to buy. He’s working down lists of targets seeing who he can afford – and who he cannot afford.
Players are being moved out – goalkeeper Matz Sels yesterday joined Strasbourg – and players are being moved in. The squad should be stronger when the transfer window closes on August 9, but how much stronger?
Benitez was asked about his squad during a pitchside interview after Tuesday night’s 2-2 draw against Hull City at the KCOM Stadium.
United’s manager said: “Is the current squad good enough for what we need? I don’t think so. It needs additions. That’s clear. It’s clear what we have to do.”
The arrivals of Schar and Muto, certainly, are timely given that the transfer window closes in just under two weeks.
But they have to be put into context. Newcastle’s mid-table rivals, and the newly-promoted teams, are spending big money this summer.
Some of that money will be spent badly, but teams like Fulham, Brighton and Wolves are showing ambition.
United, however, are not matching Benitez’s ambitions – nor those of the supporters – and this week’s business must be put into context.
Benitez will have to spend what little he has as shrewdly as he can.
Kenedy, Martin Dubravka and Ki Sung-yueng are all good players with experience of the Premier League, and Benitez has done his homework on Schar and Muto, two players he feels can quickly adapt to the pace and intensity of English football.
However, will they improve the squad – or the starting XI?
Benitez spoke last summer of £25million being needed to sign a decent striker. Muto will set the club back less than half that figure, and Joselu, signed a year ago, cost £5million.
Last season’s achievement of a 10th-place Premier League finish was extraordinary, but if Benitez loses one, two or more key players, the team could look very ordinary this coming season.
There’s some unease in the dressing room at the stand-off between Benitez and owner Mike Ashley.
Those players who fought so hard last term to finish in the top half want to push on up the table this coming season, but they, like Benitez, know that the campaign could be even tougher given the money being spent elsewhere.
Benitez, now in the final year of his contract, addressed this season’s targets during the club’s training camp in Ireland earlier this month.
“We have to fix a target to stay up – that’s it,” said Benitez after a training session at the club’s Carlton House base in County Kildare. “Concentrate on staying up, and after that, see where (we finish).
“It will be more difficult than last year. Fulham, Wolves are spending. Huddersfield, Brighton ... everyone’s spending, making it more difficult.
“Next year, the target will be to stay up.”
It wasn’t what fans wanted to hear, but Benitez is keen to manage expectations on Tyneside during what could well be his last year at St James’s Park.
Benitez also addressed his future in Ireland.
“I don’t think it’s an issue with my contract,” he said. “I told Mike and (managing director) Lee Charnley and Justin (Barnes).
“They know that if we do the right things, then I’m keen to stay here for five years or whatever.
“But there’s a way to do things and we have to be sure that we do that.
“I’m really pleased with the fans, the city, the atmosphere at the games, the staff are professionals, everyone. We have all the potential to grow and to be a top side, a proper top side.”
Benitez has been less pleased with the backing he’s had in the transfer market.
He’s doing what he can with the budget he’s got, which isn’t much by Premier League standards.