Newcastle United's return to the top flight in the 2010/11 season was nothing short of a resounding success. They were a solid team all year long despite suffering from a major injury crisis midway through winter, and they ended up in 12th place - not bad at all for a promoted squad. Where do they go from here? That's a question for Robert Bishop, who writes SB Nation's Magpies blog, Coming Home Newcastle.
In 2011-12, Newcastle United finished 12th in their first season back in the Premier League, achieving their stated goal of safety but somehow managing to underwhelm at the same time. The Magpies were inconsistent and often played to the level of their competition, a characteristic that surely reflects the erratic nature of the front office. It is difficult to expect consistency from the players when they are constantly surrounded by a circus-like atmosphere, and it seemed that the three rings were in permanent residence on Tyneside. Mention Andy Carroll and Newcastle, and most Premier League fans will immediately think of the phenom's sudden last-minute £35 million departure on Deadline Day, but before that there were two separate charges of assault that resulted in a court-ordered stay with captain Kevin Nolan, followed by rumors of drug-fuelled orgies, late night benders in casinos, and of course, niggling injuries that seemingly kept Carroll off the pitch more than he was on. That says nothing of the sacking of popular manager Chris Hughton or more shenanigans by Joey Barton (though admittedly, he had a tame year by his own standards). It's easy to see why Newcastle perennially underachieves - there's never a routine week at St James' Park.
On the pitch, Newcastle will look much different than last season.* Owner Mike Ashley has suddenly decided that he should be responsible (read: incredibly cheap) with wages, and several players have left or are leaving as a result, perhaps most notably the captain Kevin Nolan. Nolan's 12 goals (and Carroll's 11) are gone, meaning that once again, one of the major questions facing this team at the outset will be, "Who will score goals for Newcastle?" The Toon are pinning a large portion of their hopes on new signing Demba Ba, a physical presence with more than capable finishing skills. He's also the proud owner of a bum knee, making him less than reliable as the primary goal scorer for 40+ matches. Predictably, manager Alan Pardew and chief scout Graham Carr have had trouble recruiting a second forward, but for now (there is still time to add someone else, right?), it appears that the best chance for cover will come in the form of Shola Ameobi, a media darling that's never gotten it all together (except in derby matches, of course), Peter Lovenkrands, the diminutive Dutchman who prefers to make constant speculative runs before checking out at 70 minutes, and Leon Best, who dazzled in a small sample size at the end of last season but whom Pardew doesn't seem to trust for some reason.
*Quite literally. This season they're runaway favorites in the "Ugliest Home Kit" contest, provided the selection committee is still handing out bonus points for betraying a time-honored design.
Of course, there are plenty of midfielders with scoring capability, and Pardew has publicly stated that he would love to play Hatem Ben Arfa (easily the most toolsy of all the Toon outfield players when healthy) in a withdrawn playmaker sort of role. Whether or not he will be healthy enough to do so is anybody's guess, but if he can get on the pitch, the complexion of this team changes dramatically. Even without Ben Arfa, new boys Sylvain Marveaux and Yohan Cabaye should improve a midfield that was already a strength. Cabaye will likely take free kicks (even if Joey Barton does indeed stick around) and will pair with Cheik Tiote to form a formidable defense in front of a back four that conceded the fifth fewest shots last season.
Who will stop those shots is a different matter. You don't often see a top flight team name their starting keeper the week before the first kick, but hey - It's Newcastle. Incumbent Steve Harper is being challenged by two youngsters with higher ceilings (though whether they're the best option at this time is a point of contention) in Tim Krul and Fraser Forster. Pardew has shown deference to Harper so far, but it wouldn't be a huge surprise if Krul, a high flyer with the ability to make the tough save and a propensity to commit howlers, got the nod.
Personnel won't be the only change, as Pardew has displayed a dogged determination to place his own stamp on the squad. Last season, the vast majority of goals scored by Newcastle were achieved through the air (mostly when Andy Carroll was around) and on set pieces, which Pardew specializes in. That trend will likely continue to a degree, but the expectation here is that he will impose a counterattacking style (paced by Tiote and Cabaye, both superb tacklers as well as distributors) on a squad that scored just a single goal on fast breaks last year.
Because of the major changes and the volatility that Newcastle exhibits year in and year out, pinning down their place in the Premier League pecking order is difficult. One can easily envision a relegation battle, but as a supporter it's almost as easy to envision a spirited fight for the final spot in European competition (followed by an inevitable letdown, of course). In fact, the only certainty seems to be that it won't be a boring journey.