Look: Manchester City will win the Premier League title. If you’d like to foster the belief that alternative outcomes are possible, then by all means characterize the two-point swing in the title race just before the international break as “significant” or even inconvenient for the reigning champions. Southampton’s Kyle Walker-Peters darting across City’s back line and striking a blow against Pep Guardiola’s Goliath; Hakim Ziyech’s magnum opus against Tottenham; Liverpool triumphing over Crystal Palace in a must-win game amid penalty controversy—this is all the kind of blockbuster stuff that suggests the pulse of the title race is quickening. It amounts to City now being just nine points clear at the top of the table now.
That is to say, with the January transfer window coming to a close on Monday, there’s little business any of the top four sides can do to actually, materially change their fortunes. If you expand it to the big six: Manchester United, Arsenal, and Tottenham all seem to be holding their breath until the end of the campaign, biding their time for another season of whichever kind of European soccer they can get. Liverpool’s delegation has returned from Argentina with Luis Diaz’s signature; maybe the Porto winger will hit the ground running, shoring up an AFCON-affected Reds attack by cutting across the rest of England like when he scored his memorable solo goal against City in last year’s Champions League. It’s equally likely it will take Diaz some time to adjust to the Premier League, and that the Citizens regain their balance and build on their best performance of the season “by farrr” to see out the potential end of Guardiola’s tenure with another piece of silverware. Near the bottom of the league things are less distinct, more chaotic, and thus, more worth talking about. For instance, have you seen what Newcastle are doing? Or rather, do you have any idea what Newcastle are doing?
In early October, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund completed a $409 million buyout of the club, which was spending another year barely hanging on to its Premier League status by the thread of an Allan Saint-Maximin. Some Newcastle fans moved swiftly past the human rights concerns of the kingdom that was gaining another foothold in one of the most visible leagues in the world, going so far as to celebrate the new ownership by wearing culturally inappropriate Arab attire. At the very least, the sale of the club meant the Magpies were now cash-rich and could throw their financial weight around with the big boys; the more optimistic among Newcastle fans hoped it was a big step toward their first top-flight trophy since 1927.
So far, Newcastle has been moving fast and indeed breaking things—but looking kind of awkward doing it. This transfer window was their first real opportunity to make their grand ambitions known, and the first move was probably the loudest, despite Chris Wood’s modest Transfermarkt profile. Paying an inflated price to take the forward off of Burnley—making a fellow club battling relegation actively worse—is the kind of move that says new ownership spares no condescension for the competition they’re joining. They’re not here to make friends; they’re barely here to play by the rules. It may have been no more than a cosmic coincidence that NBC Sports programmed a holiday package of great Premier League moments to run around that time; Kevin Keegan’s historically spicy post-match interview from Newcastle’s 1996 runners-up finish, their best in a century, must’ve ran 100 times. “I will love it if we beat them! Love it!”
There’s also this thing that’s been happening when footballers playing for better teams keep getting linked to Tyneside. When Kieran Trippier signed from Atlético Madrid, where he could’ve stayed and featured in the last 16 of this year’s Champions League, he said that he liked to “take chances and challenges.” If you’ve watched any documentary about a team running the table in whichever league, things begin in earnest with a statement signing, meant to introduce winning DNA and a new standard of excellence to the changing room. Then comes the cast of new faces that trickle in over the following months, slowly changing the identity of the club or building a new one from scratch—talks with Manchester United winger Jesse Lingard may have fallen through, but Newcastle appear on the verge of signing defender Dan Burn from Brighton, defensive midfielder Bruno Guimarães has arrived from Lyon, and Newcastle are reportedly in talks with Juventus over Spain’s lead striker Álvaro Morata, as well as with Tottenham for wantaway Dele Alli. That’s almost the makings of a spine.
Before we get ahead of ourselves, that’s not a terrifying team by any stretch, and it is January, and Newcastle are in 18th. They are not close to adding silverware to their trophy cabinet. But with a little savvy and some good luck, they could absolutely become disruptive. The idea is to just not be Fulham, who infamously spent more than 100 million pounds to download a roster of André Schürrle, Jean Michaël-Seri, André-Frank Zambo Anguissa, and Lazar Markovic, to still be relegated after the 2018-19 season, leaving them with a gaggle of top-flight level players to pay on a Championship budget. Trippier hopes that Newcastle can avoid that sort of snafu and rebuild “the right way,” like City, who “bought the right players at the right time.” Fingers crossed.