NEWCASTLE UNITED have spent more than £35m on nine players this summer, so it should be a source of both pride and concern that the most effective addition to their squad so far has been an untried 18-year-old plucked from the academy.
On one hand, the emergence of Rolando Aarons, who stood out like a beacon as he scored his first senior goal and set up another successful strike for Mike Williamson at the weekend, is a rare success story for a production line that has a poor strike rate in terms of turning out first-team talent.
But after all the hype and hyperbole that has accompanied the arrival of the likes of Remy Cabella, Emmanuel Riviere and Siem de Jong this summer, is it not a worry that almost a month into the season, and the rest of Newcastle’s expensively-assembled squad is being overshadowed and outplayed by a teenager who only made his first senior start last Tuesday?
“Rolando was the highlight of the day,” admitted Alan Pardew, who is still searching for his first Premier League win of the campaign after Wilfried Zaha’s stoppage-time strike cut short the celebrations that accompanied Williamson’s 88th-minute goal. “I gave debuts to (Alex Oxlade) Chamberlain, (Mark) Noble and (Jonjo) Shelvey and I put him in that category, but he needs to see it through now.
“They have all become established Premier League players and he can become as good as them, but he needs to focus on his game and keep his feet on the ground and then he can be a force for us.”
In other words, ‘Don’t expect too much, too soon’, all of which is a bit of an indictment on the rest of the squad, whose deficiencies in the first three league games have pushed Aarons into the spotlight.
That said, the emergence of a home-grown talent within a squad dominated by overseas players is to be welcomed, and having spent most of last season championing Hatem Ben Arfa, a flamboyant winger who had no chance of playing, at least Newcastle supporters were leaving St James’ Park at the weekend talking about a wide man who has a bright future in the team.
Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Aarons emigrated to the South-East of England as a child and initially spent time in the youth ranks at Bristol City. He moved to Newcastle at the age of 16, made his under-21 debut for the club in February 2013 and repeatedly impressed during this summer’s pre-season programme.
Saturday’s 23-minute substitute display was his breakout performance, with his dribbling ability and direct running helping haul the rest of his team-mates out of a stupor that was apparent from the moment they conceded the opening goal of the game to Dwight Gayle after just 29 seconds.
His deft header from Cabella’s corner made it 2-2, and while there was an element of fortune about the way in which his 88th-minute curler dropped perfectly for Williamson to stab home his first Newcastle goal, there was nothing fortuitous about the lightning burst of pace and slick close control that initiated the opportunity.
“We’re very excited about Rolando’s promise,” said Williamson. “You saw what he can do out there, but we see the same in training every day. He’s got a lot of talent.
“His physicality is there and technically he is fantastic. He’s got a lot of pace, and it’s just about channelling it. On top of that, he’s a great lad who works hard every day.
“We first became aware of him last season because we work on shape and play against the younger lads in training, and there were a few times when he raised eyebrows. He goes at people and goes past them, and he’s got no fear.”
Aarons’ exuberance and urgency was certainly in marked contrast to the approach of some of his colleagues, who laboured for long spells of a game that made up for in drama what it lacked in quality.
While Newcastle scored three goals to break their Premier League duck for the season, none of the strikes were particularly well-worked affairs and the club’s attacking unit continues to look somewhat dysfunctional without the presence of a more recognised target man.
Riviere clearly has ability, but the £6.5m signing from Monaco has struggled to hold the ball up in each of his games now and lacks the physique required to outmuscle Premier League defenders.
He looks like he would benefit from some more elaborate interplay and a wider range of passes behind an opposition defence, but de Jong’s lack of match sharpness remains an issue while Cabella has only performed in fleeting patches to date. It is no anomaly that all three are still to get on the scoresheet.
Further back, Newcastle’s defence failed to cope with the pace and movement of Palace’s attackers, a deficiency that was apparent on a number of occasions last season. Daryl Janmaat looks superb going forward, but was positionally suspect on a number of occasions in defence, while neither Williamson nor Fabricio Coloccini boasts the mobility required to negate a fluid opposition attack.
The hosts were undone in the very first minute, with Gayle slotting home after Tim Krul turned Marouane Chamakh’s shot onto the post. Janmaat equalised when he stabbed home at the second attempt after a dribble into the area, but Palace regained their lead within three minutes of the interval when Jason Puncheon swivelled to score in the area.
Aarons’ header drew Newcastle level for a second time, and a win looked on the cards when Williamson finally claimed his first Magpies goal at the 139th time of asking.
“I can’t remember when I last scored, but it was definitely at Watford,” said the centre-half. “It has been long overdue, but hopefully it will open the floodgates now. I’m setting myself a target of double figures for the rest of the season!”
Newcastle should have held on for the win, but with four minutes of stoppage-time having elapsed, Glenn Murray headed a long free-kick back across the area and Zaha drilled a low strike into the corner from 14 yards.
“Our fans went crazy when the third went in and we got caught up in it,” said Pardew. “We should have closed the game out.”
They should have, although blaming the concession of a costly equaliser on the emotion of the supporters is unlikely to strengthen the position of a manager who finds himself under fire once more.