Inside Newcastle’s transfer window: Chemistry, depth, prospects and the deals not done

Not for the first time, a transfer deadline arrived like a whisper at St James’ Park.

Newcastle United’s summer business was done and the window closed with a soft click. There was little activity and little pretence at it (barring a late, short-lived rumour about Hugo Lloris that withered on the vine), a familiar trait at a club who once specialised in doing just enough to get by but a strange phenomenon in this new era of expansion and expenditure.

Not that Tyneside was a subdued place yesterday (Friday). Far from it. The morning after the night before, the club and their supporters were still bubbling over a brilliant, brutal Champions League group-stage draw which will pit them against Paris Saint-Germain, Borussia Dortmund and AC Milan over six midweek nights between now and the middle of December, another demonstration of Newcastle’s return to the game’s top table.

One member of the club’s hierarchy received a text from a pal at Manchester City: “Wow, great draw!” “Can we swap?” they shot back (with City being dealt a more pedestrian hand containing RB Leipzig, Red Star Belgrade and Young Boys), but that was in jest.

“It’s a brilliant moment for the city,” Dan Ashworth, the sporting director, said.

Yet in terms of new signings to deal with those matches? Tumbleweed.

With four senior players arriving for a commitment of £129million ($162m) — a figure which will rise by £28m (before add-ons) when Lewis Hall’s season-long loan from Chelsea is converted into a permanent deal next summer — they looked positively serene compared to some of their rivals.

Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United were all active during the final hours of the window, but Newcastle’s work was long since complete.

Hall is seen as a deal too good to refuse, but did Newcastle need more? (Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images)

“We were always very focused on the targets we wanted,” says one senior figure at the club who, like others quoted in this piece, spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss strategy freely and to protect relationships. “We had to be very focused because we only had a certain amount to spend and, to be honest, we pushed the envelope by bringing in Lewis.”

It did not quite compute with the prediction head coach Eddie Howe made when his team secured their position in the top four late last season. “This will be our hardest window to date,” Howe said, which felt like quite a statement.

In January last year, newly-appointed Howe had manned the phones himself with new co-owners Amanda Staveley and Mehrdad Ghodoussi, forgoing sleep and losing weight as they frantically attempted to lift the club from the relegation battle. Harder than that, Eddie? Really?

Twenty months ago, improving a squad locked in the Premier League’s bottom three proved relatively straightforward, even if the logistics and all that scrambling was exhausting. Now, the challenge was about getting better than fourth place in the Premier League, broadening the squad’s quality to take on the top tier of European club football but also sticking within their financial parameters.

As Howe put it, “the pool of players we have to select from is very small.”

Nothing comes easy.

There are already inklings this season may not quite flow for Newcastle in the way the last one did — Bruno Guimaraes getting grumpy on social media, Jamaal Lascelles and his recent late-night altercation in the city centre, a 2-1 defeat to 10-man Liverpool from a goal up after 80 minutes, a tough Carabao Cup fixture against Manchester City at the end of the month, that ridiculous Champions League group…

At his press conference before his side’s long journey to Brighton & Hove Albion for this evening’s Premier League fixture, Howe was asked if he stood by that “hardest” prophesy.

“Yeah, it was a tough window, I’ve said that many times during the summer,” he said. “It was very, very difficult to get things moving. The market was very slow, teams didn’t want to sell their players. I think that did change towards the end of the window, there seemed a little bit more movement, but the pond is getting smaller and smaller and smaller. The same players are on everyone’s lips at the same clubs.”

On Newcastle’s dealings overall, Howe said: “We were able to get the targets we wanted. And we’ve been quite settled. As I sit here now, I’m pleased.”

Since their Saudi Arabia-backed takeover in October 2021, Newcastle’s hit-rate in the market has been astonishing, but these are weeks of discovery and settling in and only Sandro Tonali, their big-hitter of this window, has started a match so far.

Was the effort worthwhile? Was it directed in the right areas? Having banked on being smarter and quicker than their rivals, have Newcastle been smart enough to thrive on all fronts?

As Howe said, “You can only tell the strength of a window over time.”

Back in the spring, Newcastle’s recruitment team identified up to six areas where they would ideally like to add more depth; two midfielders, two attackers, a right-sided centre-half and a left-back. Getting all six done was always viewed as unlikely and impractical; Financial Fair Play (FFP) was beginning to bite and, in any case, another senior source said “six new players could easily destroy the dressing-room dynamic”.

In the end, their senior recruits for the summer are Tonali from AC Milan for an initial €60million (£51.4m, $64.7m), Harvey Barnes from Leicester for £38m, Tino Livramento from Southampton for £40m and Hall; a midfielder, a wide forward and young full-backs on either side. As they had signposted early on, Newcastle targeted last season’s relegated clubs as sources of players — not that either Barnes or Livramento came particularly cheap.

Those incomings reflect the kind of positional flexibility Howe likes but also the flexibility of thinking Newcastle have adopted post-takeover. While Howe described right-back as a “priority” following Livramento’s arrival, citing the fitness of Emile Krafth and Javier Manquillo, it was about making best use of their budget to get the highest quality players available. Livramento and Hall were both seen as “too good” to pass up.

Ultimately, it was why they did not bring in a centre-half — the one area where they still look a little light. Among other players, Newcastle expressed an interest in Joachim Andersen, who, like Fabian Schar, is comfortable in possession, but with Crystal Palace seeking over £30million for the 27-year-old Denmark international, they moved on.

In midfield, that flexibility was assisted by 20-year-old Elliot Anderson’s storming pre-season and determination to make an impact now, as well as the emergence of Lewis Miley, 17, who Newcastle believe has a glittering future.

Their strategy was multi-layered; to get bigger, stronger and younger, to be financially cute and avoid getting involved in auctions over players, to mitigate as far as possible against Howe’s concern that Newcastle “might need two different XIs within the space of a few days this season” and, just as importantly, to maintain the spirit which has been a hallmark of their rise over the past couple of years.

“Kieran (Trippier, who turns 33 in a couple of weeks) is so superb and we hope he’ll be with us forever, but at some point we need to have depth,” one of our sources says. “We knew there would be a lot of pressure on the squad (with the extra games this season) and we were quite exposed in some positions. We had to protect ourselves — we were one injury away from being screwed.

“With Tino and Lewis (Hall) we think they can go on to become one of the best full-back pairings in the Premier League. They can make a difference for years to come.”

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Barnes is one of the players Newcastle bought from a relegated side (Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images)

Whether Newcastle’s starting line-up is immediately and hugely improved is a matter of debate, although Tonali is the real deal and the fruits of previous windows — and an extended spell working with Howe on the training pitch — has been in evidence in the blistering form over these initial few weeks of Anthony Gordon, a signing from January. Their bench, however, is much stronger, with Barnes, Callum Wilson, Sean Longstaff, Anderson and Jacob Murphy among the players deployed in matches so far this season.

Much as they have been since the takeover, co-owners Staveley and Ghodoussi have been a visible presence at the training ground over recent weeks, using the personal touch to bring everyone together in the early moments of a season where the dynamics have shifted slightly.

Newcastle are no longer the wannabes but a big, ambitious club competing at the top. “We have to still think and play like the underdogs in every game,” striker Wilson cautioned last week.

“It’s so important to us that the chemistry is really right, that the dressing room ‘sings’,” says one of our senior sources. “As before, we’ve spent a lot of time and energy making sure we bring in the right calibre of people who will work well together. We’ve been making sure the whole squad is united.”

It is understood a dispute over Newcastle’s bonus structure, one more legacy from the previous Mike Ashley ownership era, was swiftly resolved.

Tonali was the big one, the kind of game-changing signing that calcified Newcastle’s presence as a Champions League club again.

There was a gasp inside Monaco’s Grimaldi Forum on Thursday afternoon when Howe’s side were matched with Milan, PSG and Dortmund in Group F but, in one sense the section’s bottom seeds already have a victory in the bank, plucking a stellar player with his best years ahead of him from a club who have turned out to be one of their group rivals. Milan know all about Newcastle.

Howe and Jason Tindall, his senior assistant, had actually made an informal presentation to Declan Rice, a player Newcastle had long admired (though they were hardly alone in that). Yet there was always an understanding that the England midfielder, who was impressed and flattered by the conversation according to friends, was destined to leave West Ham United for Arsenal and that his prospective fee, which eventually rose to £105million, would wipe out Newcastle’s summer budget.

Tonali was the priority, albeit another one “we weren’t expecting to get”, the senior figure says. “He (was) a star at Milan, lives and breathes the club, an Italy international. But things changed and we moved accordingly. They needed to sell somebody.”

As The Athletic reported earlier this summer, they were content when their interest in Felix Nmecha of Wolfsburg and Inter Milan’s Nicolo Barella surfaced, because it allowed them to deal with Milan without pressure.

The hope is that Tonali can prove to be as good as Rice, and the overall plan is that he will lift some of the burden from Guimaraes, in whose absence last season Newcastle failed to win a league match in six tries.

When Tonali goes forward, Guimaraes can hang back, and vice versa, which theoretically should make Howe’s midfield less easy to read. After their season-opener against Aston Villa and a 5-1 home victory, Howe said “he fell in love watching him (Tonali) play a game last year.” Tyneside swoons.

“We’re stepping up,” one senior figure said, but both they and Howe reject the term “statement signing.”

“The intention is to get the right player, the right fit, the right position, the right place,” the source says. “Sandro is a marquee signing, but what’s important is that these guys believe in our story, our journey and what we’re offering them – the opportunity for greatness.”

Howe said: “We just want to bring really good players to the club who can take the team on to another level.”

Transfer windows always froth with tension and although Howe has a tight relationship with Staveley and Ghodoussi — three people bound together after those extraordinary first few months in their jobs — he is no different from any other person in his position. While directors seek value and must protect the club from FFP sanctions, managers want their business done early, giving them time on the grass with the players to prepare. They always want more.

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Newcastle made an informal approach to Rice, while Guimaraes will gain support from Tonali (Chloe Knott – Danehouse/Getty Images)

June is a dead month, with most football people away on holiday, but Howe was edgy. He knew the club’s budget was restrictive — exacerbated by a “Newcastle tax”, because of the state wealth of their Saudi majority ownership — and at that stage he thought two elite players in, and then either loans or cheaper options, might be the best he could hope for.

Newcastle briefed that targets such as Dominik Szoboszlai and Moussa Diaby — who were on the radar of other Premier League teams and have ended up at Liverpool and Villa respectively — would not fit their budget (not with Tonali on the go), while James Maddison, a player at relegated Leicester both coaching staff and directors loved, was not a priority as they sought to fill other positions; though they were prepared to pivot to him if the deal made financial sense and other options fell through.

After Tonali’s arrival, the senior figure warned, “We can’t go big again,” and “We’re looking at outgoings. We need that to make it work.” By the time Newcastle beat non-League neighbours Gateshead 3-2 in their first friendly of the summer on July 15, Howe was saying, “At different times there have been frustrations and difficult days. We know the challenges that we face. I’m very pleased to get Sandro in, but I know we need more.”

“Make it work” was a reference to staying within the FFP framework. As Darren Eales, the chief executive, said later: “When you dispose of a player, you get all the revenue from that sale at that time; when you acquire a player, it’s amortised over the length of the contract. It’s just the way the accounting procedure is with FFP.”

This partially explains how Chelsea have managed to spend so much money since their own takeover in May last year, bringing in funds from player sales and then giving expensive new signings such as 21-year-old Moises Caicedo eight-year contracts. Even if they wanted to (which they don’t), Newcastle could not have followed this path, with UEFA closing the loophole for clubs competing in its three competitions (which Chelsea aren’t this season); five years is now its maximum permitted for amortisation purposes.

Longer-term contracts can be dangerous — and very costly, in terms of wages — if the players on them get injured or fall out of form or favour. “We’d rather do it this way. We want to be number one, but in the right way; smart, sustainable, different to everyone else,” the Newcastle senior source said.

To add a depth of quality beyond Tonali, Howe had to make a sacrifice; as always seemed likely. That meant a goodbye to Allan Saint-Maximin, a reliably unreliable game-changer who was beset with fitness issues last season and struggled to nail down a regular starting place. Off he went to Al Ahli — like Newcastle, a club majority-owned by Saudi’s Public Investment Fund — for a fee of around $30million.

The deal brought a terse reaction from some rival clubs, who pushed the Premier League to investigate Newcastle, related-party transactions and whether Saint-Maximin represented fair market value. With the window closing and Saudi champions Al Ittihad pushing to sign Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, another narrative emerged: that Newcastle were somehow benefitting from the destabilisation of their rivals.

The irony here is that Newcastle are adamant they have not unduly benefitted from the influence of the upstart Saudi Pro Lague and that it has in fact complicated their own endeavours, both in terms of fending off concerns and with plenty of the Premier League’s bigger clubs — now their direct competitors again — easing their FFP bottom-lines with big sales to Saudi sides, even if not every approach has been welcomed.

On the footballing front, the first source says, “We were sad to let Allan go and we will miss him, but having someone with the consistency and professionalism of Harvey, who will work hard and track back is important,” and this was part of their calculation. Saint-Maximin had magic in his boots, but Barnes is direct and sturdy and will provide goals and assists.

In time, other players will have to leave, but not in the manner that drove Newcastle fans to distraction in the bad old days, either when the family jewels were sold off or, under Ashley, when players viewed St James’ Park as a stepping-stone to better things. Whether it is City, Arsenal or Chelsea, all the big clubs sell and recycle, and one of Newcastle’s stated goals is to become self-sufficient.

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Saint-Maximin’s move to Saudi Arabia raised complaints from rival English clubs (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Saint-Maximin gave Newcastle scope to ramp up discussions with Southampton over Livramento, which had trundled on since June, with the newly-relegated club, who were due to pay a significant sell-on fee to his previous team Chelsea, initially demanding £50million for the England Under-21 international before eventually accepting around £10m less. In early July, Newcastle had been prepared to walk away from those talks, unsure that Southampton actively wanted to sell.

Livramento, 20, understands he will not be playing every week, with Trippier in exceptional form last season, but the glut of matches across four competitions means his time can be managed more. Opportunities will come, just as they will for 18-year-old Hall, who understudies Dan Burn, 31, at left-back.

The structuring of Hall’s deal means his permanent signing will fall into next year’s accounts, which is what Howe was getting at recently when he said Newcastle had to be “creative” with their final signing. The club insist Hall was the last player they approached, in spite of reports they had made a move for Lloris, the Spurs goalkeeper.

As always, what comes next will be fascinating, and Newcastle appreciate they are now there to be shot at, part of an establishment they pushed so hard to join last season. Last weekend’s late defeat to Liverpool’s 10 men stung everybody but was also a study in fine margins. “I think people have overreacted a little bit,” one of our sources says. “We’ve already had two of our toughest games (having also played champions City away).” They know how to bounce back.

“We’re delighted with the business we’ve done,” says the leading figure. “You’re always nervous about letting people down and whether we’ve made the right decisions, particularly when there’s so much pressure on everybody, but I think we’ve coped well with it. A lot of people have said we won’t do as well this season, but we’ll be trying as hard as we can to prove them wrong.”

Newcastle’s key summer transfers

In: Sandro Tonali — AC Milan, £60m; Harvey Barnes — Leicester, £38m; Yankuba Minteh — Odense, undisclosed; Tino Livramento — Southampton, £40m; Lewis Hall — Chelsea, loan (to become £28m permanent deal).

Out: Yankuba Minteh — Feyenoord, loan; Chris Wood — Nottingham Forest, undisclosed; Matty Longstaff — released; Ciaran Clark — released; Karl Darlow — Leeds United, £400k; Allan Saint-Maximin — Al Ahli, £23m; Garang Kuol — Volendam, loan; Harrison Ashby — Swansea City, loan; Ollie Harrison — Chelsea, undisclosed; Ryan Fraser — Southampton, loan; Jeff Hendrick — Sheffield Wednesday, loan.

Additional reporting: Jacob Whitehead

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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