No January signings could cost Newcastle Champions League football
Newcastle United are genuine contenders for Champions League qualification but it is a fragile challenge and a mission which may well prove beyond them by the time we get into the spring.
If Newcastle’s shock FA Cup defeat by Sheffield Wednesday was painful to watch, it was also a useful reminder that the team has massively overperformed under manager Eddie Howe. It was also a timely signposting of the lack of squad depth in the middle of a transfer window, exposing players who have hardly played this season for a reason.
The takeaway message was loud and clear. Newcastle do not have a squad of the same quality of any of the other Europe-chasing sides - this includes those competing for the Europa League, not just the Champions League.
In fact, in terms of depth in key positions, they still have a squad that spent most of the last four years battling against relegation under both Rafa Benitez and Steve Bruce. When they are asked to play together in vast numbers, they struggle and their limitations are obvious. It is that simple.
One or two can be absorbed into a team alongside successful new signings like Kieran Trippier, Sven Botman, Dan Burn and Bruno Guimarares. But if they play in a group, as they did against Wednesday, there are too many weak links.
Howe gambled on Saturday night playing so many because he had to. The same players are starting every week in the league and Tuesday night’s home Carabao Cup quarter-final against Leicester is far more important than a third round FA Cup tie. Rotation was needed to protect his best players. On this occasion, it was a gamble he lost.
Newcastle’s progress and growth has been so quick under Howe that it is easy to forget at the start of his reign he won just one game with the players he inherited from Bruce over the course of two months.
There has been so much joy and excitement on Tyneside this season, fueling talk of European tours and even dreams of lifting a trophy - such as the League Cup - that an element of perspective is at risk of being lost.
That is not helped, of course, by the likes of Mikel Arteta and Pep Guardiola, as well as some pundits, arguing Newcastle are genuine title contenders. Newcastle’s ability has been over inflated and, if you were being cynical, it was done deliberately to destabilise.
It has been a fantastic campaign up to this point and one defeat, albeit to a team two divisions below them, should not and will not alter that.
Newcastle lost to Sheffield Wednesday because they did not take a succession of chances in front of goal. They missed at least five golden opportunities, with record signing Alexander Isak, Elliott Anderson, Jacob Murphy, Matt Ritchie and Chris Wood all guilty on an infuriating night.
But the performance was poor, the defence looked shaky and Sheffield Wednesday deserved their magical FA Cup night. It happens.
While it should not be forgotten in the boardroom, where a reluctance to spend any money this month will surely now be questioned, fans should quickly move on.
They have had to endure one defeat in the league all season and have a vitally important Carabao Cup tie on Tuesday to look forward to.
If you said Newcastle would reach their first domestic cup semi-final since 2005 at the start of the season but would be knocked out early in the other one, every supporter would have taken that deal. The Leicester game is, by some distance, Newcastle’s biggest of the season so far.
As for the board, led by sporting director Dan Ashworth, there is now a decision to make in the next few days.
Howe has warned them that injuries to key players like Bruno, Botman and Trippier, as well as striker Callum Wilson, would expose the squad and make European qualification far more unlikely. Do they now bring forward summer spending if there is a player they really like?
We are only halfway through the campaign. Newcastle could easily tumble down the table with Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and Liverpool all currently below them, but with far more strength in depth.
There is a reluctance to spend money in January because the club is pushing the limits of Financial Fair Play, with more than £200 million spent on new players in the last 12 months and not one sold. The wage bill has also increased dramatically with no new major sponsors announced to boost income.
The club’s owners are extremely wealthy and would be spending extravagantly if they could, but FFP, and the tightening up of sponsorship deals related to owners, was put in place to stop - or at least hinder - clubs like Newcastle. The Magpies have been caged, for the time being at least.
This is the context needed to understand the Sheffield Wednesday defeat, but also why the Champions League may prove a step too far for Newcastle this season. It would not be a disaster if they miss out and nobody should frame it as such.
There is still so much cause for optimism. The Sheffield Wednesday defeat stung but it was pain that was to be expected at some point.
It is okay to lose sometimes, every team does and will. This was one of those occasions. In the grand scheme of things, Newcastle are still enjoying a wonderful season at the start of an incredible journey - nobody on Tyneside should forget that.