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Newcastle United: BTSport.com's Premier League 2019/20 season preview

Rafa Benitez has finally had enough of Mike Ashley's broken promises at St James' Park after working wonders with limited tools. Without their inspirational Spaniard, Toon fans are understandably fearful of the season ahead.

Last season's Premier League finish: 13th - (W12 D9 L17 - F42 A48 - Pts 45)

Last season's top scorer: Ayoze Perez - 12 (13 in all competitions)

To be relegated*: 10/3

First five fixtures: Arsenal (H), Norwich (A), Tottenham (A), Watford (H), Liverpool (A)

Predicted finish (BTSport.com writers' combined prediction): 17th

Predicted finish by The Script: 18th

Transfers in: Joelinton - Hoffenheim (£40m), Allan Saint-Maximin - Nice (£16.5m), Andy Carroll - West Ham (free), Emil Krafth - Amiens (£5m), Jetro Willems - Eintracht Frankfurt (loan), Kyle Scott - Chelsea (free), Jake Turner - Bolton (free)

Transfers out: Ayoze Perez - Leicester (£30m), Joselu - Alaves (£2m), Mohamed Diame - Al Ahli (free), Liam Gibson - Grimsby (loan), Freddie Woodman - Swansea (loan), Dan Barlaser - Rotherham (loan), Jacob Murphy - Sheffield Wednesday (loan)

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Read on for BTSport.com's in-depth Newcastle season preview, or check out more from our exclusive series:

Arsenal | Aston Villa | Bournemouth | Brighton | Burnley | Chelsea | Crystal Palace | Everton | Leicester | Liverpool | Man City | Man Utd | Norwich | Sheff Utd | Southampton | Tottenham | Watford | West Ham | Wolves

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Reasons to be optimistic

Even amid a situation as bleak as the one at Newcastle, there are crumbs of comfort for supporters heading into the 2019/20 campaign.

The Magpies boasted one of the meanest defences in the Premier League last season with 11 clean sheets in total. Only six teams managed more.

Fabian Schar is an impressive defender and captain Jamal Lascelles, at 25 years old, has emerged as one of the better English centre-backs in the division. While Rafa Benitez’s organisation was key to that, Newcastle have not lost any defenders in the summer.

In fact they've gained two in areas where they were light last season - Sweden's right back Emil Frafth and Jetro Willems, a Netherlands international left back. New boss Steve Bruce will seek continuity in the area where his side are strongest. 

In midfield the emergence of Sean Longstaff offered fans encouragement before his breakout season was cut short through injury. After Newcastle clung on to the 21-year-old this summer amid interest from Manchester United, big things are expected from him this time around.

Likewise there are high hopes for new No 9 Joelinton, the club-record £40 million summer signing from Hoffenheim. Joelinton is a physical forward who impressed in the Bundesliga despite not being a prolific scorer. 

Andy Carroll, who sealed an emotional return to Tyneside this summer following his release from West Ham, looks a risk-free signing. The Gateshead-born forward remains unstoppable in the air on his day even if he will only manage a handful of matches due to his ongoing injury problems. Newcastle are counting on the pair to replace the departed Salomon Rondon and Ayoze Perez. 

Fellow new arrival Allan Saint-Maximin is an exciting winger who thrived in Ligue 1 with Nice. The 22-year-old sports a broad headband and plays with personality.

"Maxi is going to get the fans off their seat because he’s got that wow factor," Bruce said. “He will drive us mad occasionally but has blistering speed and that trick which seems to have gone out of the game."

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After such a tumultuous summer, doomsday preppers are consigning Newcastle to the Championship before the campaign has even begun. Avoiding relegation must be the target after a summer of treading water and to achieve that goal, Newcastle need just three of the likes of Sheffield United, Norwich, Aston Villa, Brighton and Burnley to perform worse than them. 

Newcastle demonstrated impressive resilience last season, albeit under Benitez, not Bruce. After losing seven and drawing three of their opening ten matches, the Magpies won their next three to drag themselves clear of the relegation zone. It’s the sort of mettle that Bruce needs to summon immediately from his players given they face Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool in their opening five fixtures.

Reasons to be fearful ​

What Benitez achieved at Newcastle was nothing short of miraculous. After winning promotion back to the Premier League as Championship winners, the former Liverpool boss led Newcastle to tenth and 13th in the past two seasons, all the while operating with a net spend of £4 million during a period where Bournemouth and Brighton were splashing out £65 million per summer.

Benitez took the limited squad and resources at his disposal and used his tactical nous to make Newcastle as hard to beat as possible. He fostered a team unity and togetherness while forming a bond between manager and supporters that had been absent since Mike Ashley took over.

So when the club announced that Benitez was leaving, the reaction was hysteria. An outpouring of gratitude to the manager and unrelenting fury at Ashley and the boardroom. “I couldn’t stay there just to be bottom,” Benitez would explain. “My idea was for Newcastle to be top ten, top eight and maybe try for Europe. If the people at the top had the same ideas, I would still be there.”

Also gone are Perez and Rondon, last season’s two top scorers who accounted for 23 of Newcastle’s 42 Premier League goals.

The pressure is on 22-year-old Joelinton, a player whose price tag was deemed too expensive by Benitez, to hit the ground running. It’s a big ask for the Brazilian, who has yet to score more than eight goals in three league seasons spent in Austria and Germany.

Bruce must operate with a threadbare, shell-shocked squad who, as captain Lascelles admits, started pre-season in disarray. The season will play out to a backdrop of fan protests and boycotts at St James’ Park that will only serve to disrupt performances on the pitch.

As soon as Benitez left, Paddy Power opted to pay out all bets placed on Newcastle to be relegated. It may have been a mere marketing tool but in the 24 hours immediately after Bruce was appointed, more than half the bets in the relegation market were lumped on Newcastle.

There was an almost universal acceptance that Benitez’s brilliance was keeping Newcastle afloat in the Premier League - a Champions League manager coaching a Championship squad. Now that life jacket has been removed and Newcastle face being cut adrift.

Amid the fury among fans, there is a sense of dread.

Key man: Miguel Almiron

Newcastle fans enter the new season still seething with Ashley and desperate for a new hero to worship.

It’s a lot to ask for a player with only ten Premier League appearances under his belt but Miguel Almiron will offer hope for supporters in what threatens to be a miserable season on Tyneside.

While it ultimately proved a false dawn, Almiron’s arrival felt symbolic at the time. Newcastle’s longstanding transfer record, dating back to Michael Owen’s arrival in 2005, was finally broken as Almiron signed from Major League Soccer side Atlanta United for £21m in January 2019. Joelinton’s arrival in July for £40m shattered the record once again.

In those ten matches before going down with a hamstring injury, the Paraguayan offered some tantalising glimpses of his ability. He can play as a number ten or on the left and, crucially, is able to create from anywhere on the pitch.

While recognising the MLS is weaker than the Premier League, Almiron racked up 19 assists and 22 goals from 68 appearances stateside to prompt Newcastle’s interest.

With Jonjo Shelvey fighting his way back into the fold and Longstaff needing to build up his match fitness, the responsibility to create will fall squarely on Almiron’s shoulders.

If you take away Rondon and Perez’s goals from Newcastle’s total last season it stands at a meagre 19. It follows there will be big pressure on Almiron - not just to create, but also to score.

The manager: Steve Bruce

It’s hard to recall a more toxic situation for a new Premier League manager to find themselves in than the mess Bruce has just walked in to at Newcastle.

The summer of 2019 has seen Newcastle lose three strikers, including both of last season’s two top scorers, and key midfielder Diame, with only Joelinton as a replacement.

But far more impactful is the departure of Benitez. The Spaniard is revered as a near-deity among supporters for keeping a squad of mostly Championship talent afloat in the Premier League.

Benitez’s exit has provoked a furious reaction towards Ashley and supporters’ groups are planning protests against the deeply unpopular Newcastle owner in their opening game of the campaign at home to Arsenal.

“I’m not Rafa Benitez,” Bruce himself admitted after he arrived in Asia for Newcastle’s pre-season tour. “I’ve got big boots to fill but I’ve been around the block a few times.”

Benitez is arguably the toughest act to follow in English football. Bruce's decision to assume the poisoned chalice therefore seems a strange decision, even if the 58-year-old is a boyhood fan of the club. “No, no, no, don’t take it,” was Alan Shearer’s advice to the incoming coach.

He was reportedly Newcastle’s 11th choice for the role – only getting a look-in after rejections from names including Sam Allardyce, Mark Hughes and Garry Monk.

Newcastle supporters are hardly impressed, reacting to the news by saying: “Bruce is an unambitious appointment by an unambitious club… a coach who wouldn’t get a job at any other Premier League side."

It’s hard to take much solace from his last three jobs – all in the Championship.

At Sheffield Wednesday, Bruce took a month-long break before assuming charge of the club. At Aston Villa he was sacked and at Hull he resigned shortly after winning promotion due to a lack of transfer activity – an issue that ultimately led to Benitez’s departure on Tyneside.

Bruce’s quest for acceptance is damaged further by the fact his most recent Premier League job was at Newcastle’s fiercest rivals Sunderland.

At his unveiling, Bruce was asked about the crime trilogy he authored while a Sheffield United player in 1999. The first instalment, Striker!, is told from the perspective of football manager Steve Barnes, who must prove his innocence after being accused of murdering his own player on the eve of a crucial relegation six-pointer.

Twenty years on and the tribulations of his detective alter-ego pale in comparison to the challenges facing the man himself. It's hard to escape the feeling that Bruce at Newcastle has all the ingredients of an unmitigated disaster.

Fans' view - NUFC Supporters' Club - Steve Cole

"We are disappointed and frustrated. We have gone from a manager who is maybe a top ten coach in Europe to a manager who is statistically one of the worst in Premier League history.

"I’ve got nothing against Bruce personally, even with his past at Sunderland. My problem is that he’s a manager who has been round the block a few times and done absolutely nothing. He got sacked with Aston Villa in the Championship! It’s a backwards move from the club.

"Benitez had the ability to get a poor team out of the mire. He worked miracles by getting a Championship squad to mid-table in the Premier League – the last half of the season saw a remarkable turnaround from certain relegation.

"Despite all the restrictions, he managed to sign good players and improve the squad year on year. I can’t see Bruce improving the squad at all.

"It’s massive to lose Perez and Rondon from the team - the firepower has completely gone. Dwight Gayle is an excellent Championship player but he seems to lack that ability to cut it in the Premier League. Joelinton is a massive gamble at only 22 years old.

"It’s all very, very concerning. Relegation is a very serious threat and Newcastle will be among the favourites to go down along with Norwich, Sheffield United and Brighton. But I struggle to see three worse sides than Newcastle this season.

"It will be a toxic atmosphere at home to Arsenal in the opening game of the season. The anger will be aimed at the owner but it cannot help but filter through to the players. The crowd at St James’ Park energises the team when it gets behind them but when they turn it has a demoralising effect.

"It’s a club I’ve supported for 60 years but it’s not been enjoyable under Ashley. When we had Benitez we had some hope. Now I’m fearful."

*All odds correct with bet365 at time of writing

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