Newcastle vs Southampton: Aleksandar Mitrovic aims at fresh target

Serbian striker is one of two ‘statement signings’ by new Newcastle manager Steve McClaren

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The Independent Football

Captured in black and white, it could pass as an image from the 1980s. Thursday lunchtime on the narrow driveway leading to Newcastle United’s training ground,  a modest, white Mitsubishi is hemmed in by children. They are thrusting pens, pads and memorabilia through the window to a nonchalant 20-year-old who gazes at them with eyes that would later be described as an “assassin’s”.

That young man is striker Aleksandar Mitrovic, and those young boys reflect a sudden buzz on  Tyneside. Mitrovic is the £12.5m striker Newcastle have recruited from Anderlecht. He will, according to new manager Steve McClaren, be an aggressive asset, starting on Sunday at home to Southampton.

McClaren stressed caution, that Mitrovic is “one for now, but definitely for the future”. Even so, before a ball is kicked, the former England manager, in cheerleader form, did not swat aside Diego Costa comparisons.  “Yeah, he has that, he likes physicality,” McClaren said of Mitrovic in a Costa context. “There aren’t many like that now. You can see it in training, he likes that physical contact. He has an edge.”

McClaren then indulged in some Balkan stereotyping – “He’s a typical ‘ic’” – while rubbishing a claim from Belgium that Mitrovic has more in common with Mario Balotelli than Diego Costa. 

“Balotelli? He’s totally unlike him. He doesn’t skulk around the training ground, he’s always smiling. Yes, he’s got those assassin’s eyes, but he’s been great. He’s come with a reputation but he’s worked hard. He’s Serbian and he’s an ‘ic’ – be careful.”

For McClaren, Mitrovic is one of two “statement” signings by Newcastle this summer. The other is midfielder Georginio “Gini” Wijnaldum, £14.5m from PSV Eindhoven. Historically only Michael Owen and Alan Shearer have cost Newcastle more. Wijnaldum (left) arrives as Holland’s Footballer of the Year. At 24, he has 19 Netherlands caps and played in every game for his country at last year’s World Cup, scoring in the third-place play-off victory over Brazil. This week Jose Mourinho said Wijnaldum “could play for Chelsea”, to which McClaren responded: “Yeah? Well, hopefully not for another four or five years.”

As effusive about Wijnaldum as he had been about Mitrovic,  McClaren said: “I knew him  [Wijnaldum] very well from my time [managing] in Holland. He killed my teams a few times, and  he’s one that can adapt to the Premier League.

“He brings energy, tempo, quality on the ball, can score, adaptability in the midfield area – he can sit, go forward, box-to-box and can play a ‘10’. That kind of flexibility.”

There is a third signing, Chancel Mbemba, also from Anderlecht, whose fee could rise to £8.5m.  Mbemba is a centre-half – much-needed at Newcastle, who conceded 63 goals last season. Mbemba,  remarkably, has said his ambition after football is to be “an electrician”. Maybe he can fix it. 

Together the trio look to have cost Newcastle £35m. There have been no sales as yet, and for McClaren the signings represent a shift in policy at St James’ Park in the Mike Ashley era. McClaren is already talking about this window as the first of three that he hopes will  reshape the team: “If you’ve seen the plans and what’s ahead, what the squad will be like in a year and three windows on – yeah, it’s good.”

A sceptical fanbase will wait for proof. While Ashley would say that last summer’s net spend was approximately £20m, his many critics would point out that three previous summers brought a combined net spend of around £1m.

The former England manager does not want this argument. He has been deliberately upbeat, shaking hands, aware that under Ashley, Newcastle has turned into a clenched fist. 

On Tuesday 13,000 fans turned up at St James’ for an open training session. The new signings,  plus McClaren, were given a reminder of the potential scale of Newcastle United, and the attendance against Southampton is expected to be a healthy 50,000.