In the same way I am currently stunned that Mexico score in the first 30 seconds of the Olympic Gold Medal match against Brazil (seriously, I don't know if they could have scored faster if there were no Brazilians on the field), I remain just as stunned that Newcastle not only finished ahead of Champions League Champs Chelsea but they did it with a stunning reversal in the way they managed their club. Gone were the days of overspending on Englishmen of questionable character and talent. Gone were the rumors of a fractured and dysfunctional locker room and all-night parties. In their place arrived a focus on under-valued foreigners that, as it turns out, can really play. Cheik Tiote, Yohan Cabaye, Demba Ba, Papiss Cisse, Hatem Ben-Arfa, and Davide Santon all came in with modest reputations and modest price tags but if Newcastle were to cash in now, they'd likely be able to triple their money on this group.
Alan Pardew has had mixed success as a manager but after helping Newcastle dig out of their shocking relegation and all of the dysfunction that came along with it, he has to be considered a better than average manager. Let's face it, none of us would have been surprised with a mid-table or lower finish last season. With Mike Ashley seemingly having matured into his role as an owner who understands the balance between being a fan, an owner, and fiscally responsible the elements are in play for Newcastle - and their strong support and big stadium - to be among the bigger and better clubs in the "non-oil-money" group.
The one note of caution for Magpies everywhere with one week remaining before the season kicks off is that they haven't seemed able to repeat the bargain hunting success of the last couple of summers. With Liverpool and Chelsea both having taken steps to improve, Newcastle are at risk of falling behind by standing still. So, how will this work out for them in the 2012-13 fantasy season? Click past the jump and find out:
Quick Recap of Last Season: What a ride it was. The season started with Demba Ba and Yohan Cabaye overcoming rumored infirmity (Ba) and obscurity (Cabaye) to rival Swansea as the surprise package of the early season. As the season progressed, the heroes changed with Ba receding and Cisse ascending. Ben Arfa had his moments in the sun after coming back from injury and Davide Santon finally got into a groove and started showing some of the sort of form that had him reputed to be the next great Italian defender as he rose through the youth ranks. Through it all, Tim Krul was strong in goal mirroring the rise in reputation of his Dutch national team colleague Michael Vorm.
What's Changed: Here's the rub. There is talk of moves for a couple of good players in midfielder Vurnon Anita and Mathieu Debuchy. Debuchy might be an upgrade on the right but Anita is unlikely to represent anything other than some solid and versatile depth in midfield. In the honorary Arsene Wenger "like a signing" category, we have injury-plagued center back Steven Taylor. Only once in his career has he played more than 30 matches in a league season and the last two seasons have seen him play only 14 league matches each time. If he can stay healthy he is a nice addition as a third option at center back. If you're Manchester City and you've won the league then it might be OK to rest on your laurels. If you're Newcastle and your surprisingly effective finish will be under attack from deep-pocketed teams in Chelsea and Liverpool you have to feel like more needed to be done.
Real World Projection: Things went pretty well last year at Newcastle when it comes to injuries, luck, etc. It is hard to imagine that they won't regress a little bit on that factor alone. Throw in improvements at Arsenal, Liverpool, and Chelsea and it's hard to see Newcastle finishing higher than 6th or 7th. That's still a very solid outcome for a team with their recent history and no petro-dollars to throw at the world's biggest names.
Fantasy Production: Newcastle, despite their 5th place finish, weren't exceptional fantasy point producers just about equaling Swansea's total with 2581 total fantasy points. Looking beyond the overall total we see the following worries - their biggest producer last season overall, Demba Ba, faded greatly after Cisse arrived. Also worrying, their 5th biggest producer (that man Cisse again) only played half of a season. Finally, while the overall total was certainly solid, it was split up between a lot of players who ended with decent totals but few who were both outstanding and consistent.
Fantasy Gold: There are questions at forward where we will have to figure out if Cisse can maintain his blistering pace of last season. We also have to learn if Pardew can find a way to make both Cisse and Ba productive at the same time or if Ba's time as a viable fantasy starter have come to an end. Just below whichever NUFC forward ends up with the majority of the points this time around comes a few pretty good, but not great fantasy options in Tim Krul, Yohan Cabaye, Fabricio Coloccini, and James Perch. As with City, the problem with these guys is that their prices have caught up with their production.
- Demba Ba - Somehow Ba opens the season priced higher than Papiss Cisse despite having had a pretty lackluster second half of the season. Hard to see him being a value play until his price comes down dramatically.
- Papiss Cisse - We kept waiting for him to cool off over the second half of last season and it never happened, I have to admit that with his price as high as it is, I'm still a little skeptical but if he really is that good then there's some potential value to be had here. If the production continues at that pace he'll be priced over 20 by mid-to-late-September.
- Yohan Cabaye - He had a great debut season in the Prem as both a real and fantasy player. The problem is that his price has taken him from undervalued to a bit overvalued. It doesn't seem like there's a great deal of upside here so I wouldn't be inclined to buy him over guys like Taarabt who are priced similarly and do seem to have some upside.
- Davide Santon - He seems likely to be a regular starter in an above average defense at a reasonable price, unlike most of his teammates, there seems to be some upside here.
- Hatem Ben-Arfa - He started to show evidence of the talent that had him as a rumored Arsenal target for a few years before he went to Newcastle. His price was very low last season which made it easy to take risks on him. His price has climbed over 7 which means that for him to be good value he'll have to start producing much more consistently than he did in 2011-12. He has the ability to make that happen but it hasn't yet so I don't want to lead you to believe he's a sure thing as a value play this season.
First Five Weeks: Tottenham, @Chelsea, Aston Villa, @Everton, Norwich - Newcastle are lucky to get Spurs while they seem likely to be unsettled between Modric wanting out, Parker being hurt, and there not really being any top end forwards in place. After that it will be a tough trip to Stamford Bridge. After that, the schedule moderates with a steady diet of mid-table competition where it should be a good time to bring in some Newcastle players into your team.