With this post we usher in a third author to the site, Matt Feltz. Matt is a freelance writer based in Boston who usually writes about biotechnology and bioethics. But Newcastle United is his secret (or maybe no-longer-so-secret) passion. Take it away, Matt, and welcome.
by Matt Feltz
There's really no getting around it: last Saturday was a catastrophe. I'm still having nightmares involving this line from ESPN commentator Ian Darke: “James Perch is going to come on. I don't know whether Coloccini is struggling, or what. We'll see shortly.” And many Newcastle fans, including my illustrious co-blogger Tom, have used the opportunity to criticize the club for not having prepared for the worst — injuries to all three center backs on the roster at the same time.
The “depth charge” has been lurking all season, mostly as a way for analysts to explain why Newcastle couldn't possibly maintain its lofty league position all year. And it's absolutely true that the club doesn't have the quality bench of, say, Manchester City. (Even with all of that oil money behind them, I'm not sure City supporters would relish going into a game starting their fourth and fifth choices at the back.) Yes, that's at least partially a result of poor planning or penny pinching. But even in this tumultuous time, let's take a step back.
During the summer transfer window, Newcastle was a big name club, to be sure. It also had no European soccer to offer, and no guarantees of playing in Europe anytime soon. After all, it'd just been relegated, had an unpopular owner with a history of scattershot decisions, and looked likely to lose more key players in the next few months. And Europe is a big draw: not just for guaranteed starters, but for players who'd spend a lot of time on the subs bench.
Why? Well, with a schedule packed full of midweek games, second- and third-choice players are going to get a lot of time, whether in the Premier League or in the European games themselves. It's easier to recruit a talented backup if he knows he's going to have plenty of chances to play.
This is especially true when thinking about the sorts of players Newcastle is targeting in their current transfer policy — players with tons of potential who are just about to enter their prime. You might find a veteran who's willing to cash some big paychecks and only play once every three months (I'm looking at you, Alan Smith), but is that really the sort of player worth spending money on? Fill your squad with average, expensive players, and you end up looking like Sunderland.
So the present strategy requires a bit of a gamble—that whatever backups are there can play well enough if the starters do get injured. And in that regard, I have a lot of faith in the coaching staff to get decent performances out of whoever plays on Saturday. James Perch made a mess of his first season at the club, but like my co-blogger, I thought he held his own against Chelsea. Even better, he improved as the game went on, clearly benefiting from whatever instructions he was given at halftime.
You could say much the same about Ryan Taylor and Danny Guthrie, who have been serviceable (and quite good, in Guthrie's case) despite being players that many supporters didn't even want around this year. I don't think the Perch/anyone else pairing is going to make fans forget Coloccini and Steven Taylor anytime soon. But after seeing a pretty spirited performance against Chelsea by a team of second-choice players last week, I'm cautiously optimistic about the weekend and beyond.