We’re three transfer windows into our new ownership, and it’s safe to say it’s been a million times better than the majority, if not all, under Mike Ashley.
We’ve strengthened the first team squad and turned an underperforming back five into the best in the league. Bruno has brought life to what was a hollow and uninventive midfield that was forced to camp out in its own half and counted on unreliable long balls from Shelvey. Isak, with only a few sparse appearances so far, looks explosive, exciting and clinical. But this coming window could be our biggest.
Many expected a mass exodus last summer that didn’t really materialise. We’ve built up a roster of players who were brought in either to do a specific job (like see us through promotion), were bought a long time ago or were snapped up on the cheap.
Players who’ve barely racked up double digit minutes on the pitch since the takeover. Those we love, who we know are vocal behind the scenes – like your Lascelles and Ritchies – and ones that probably should have been set free for their own good, like Jamal Lewis and Ryan Fraser.
Dummett, a long-standing and loyal servant to the club, looks like he might never play a minute more for us through an accumulation of unfortunate injuries.
This forthcoming window could make or break us and set the course of our trajectory over the next few years. We’re almost certainly going to qualify for Europe in some way, shape or form – it’s yet to be seen whether it’ll be the Champions League, Europa League or Europa Conference League.
Squad depth is a glaring issue at the moment – it was quite telling that the likes of Matt Ritchie and Jacob Murphy came on while 2-0 down in Sunday’s final, while Man Utd were able to turn to Jadon Sancho, Harry Maguire and Marcel Sabitzer. Although we have a lot of these fringe players, they’re not quite up to the job – especially with the demands that Europe brings.
Bruno’s ban made the decision to let Shelvey go only last month look a bit silly. We couldn’t have anticipated that this would happen almost immediately, but we knew that any stint on the sidelines for a centre mid would leave us bare. Especially when it’s Bruno.
It made me wonder why we didn’t focus on creating that strength in depth in January – especially when it was laid so bare after the loss to Sheffield Wednesday. The first-teamers in the side (apart from Isak arguably) weren’t good enough that day, but those fringe players really didn’t look the part. There’s a clear gulf in class between the new wave of exciting signings and existing squad men signed by the likes of Bruce or Benitez.
But we’re likely to have more significant funds to play with come the summer. With an obligation to buy now activated, Chris Wood’s sale to Nottingham Forest has put a nice £15 million in the transfer kitty. Of the players that probably need moved on, we’re not likely to see huge sums come in – and Ritchie, Clark, Gillespie and Dummett are all out of contract and available on frees.
We’re TV darlings once again, with 16 (SIXTEEN) games in a row shown on telly this year – another source of a pretty penny. New sponsorship deals look to be on the horizon. And let’s not forget the money that European football can bring in, from continental exposure to the cash prizes for progression.
I’m no mathematician, but it looks like we’ll have a nice little FFP-compliant piggy bank to break open in the summer that might not have been quite as full last month – so the limited incomings last month make more sense.
I wrote last year that I expected the summer window to be an emotional one, as we said goodbye to players we know and love. In reality, the only truly emotional goodbyes we said were to Hayden, Fernandez and Gayle.
This is the year we really need to be ruthless. Sentiment has no place anymore; the fact that we’ve signed players with cracking attitudes as well as Champions League-level skill makes the transition easier. It would be even harder to say farewell to these players if we were left with a new cohort of prima donnas – but they couldn’t be further from that.
We can’t rest on our laurels with our first team – especially when that team has been struggling to pump out wins, and even sometimes goals, since the league restart. A strengthened midfield and striker will be essential additions in and around the first team, if only to challenge those established starters.
Then, the focus needs to be adding layers to every position. And considering that mass exodus is likely to happen this year, replacing the swathe of players set to leave with better alternatives will be essential.