Speaking to the Chronicle about Matty Longstaff, Newcastle United manager Steve Bruce asked, what was arguably a rhetorical question: ‘why the hell would you want to go to Udinese?’
Indeed, aside from the takeover, the future of the younger of the Longstaff brothers was one of the major talking points during the lockdown period before the 20-year-old penned a new two-year-deal in late August. Linked with a move to the aforementioned Italian outfit, as well as the likes of Watford (who are owned by the same family), Leeds and Brighton, it did appear as if the midfielder would leave at one point.
Given some of his contributions last season – famously scoring the winner against Manchester United on his league debut in front of the Gallowgate End at St. James’ Park – it’s fair to say Newcastle should be pleased with the agreement. In fact, from last season’s squad, the three players who had a better pass completion rate than him (80.4%, according to WhoScored) have all left and – looking at Understat – he also had the highest expected goals per 90 minutes of any Toon midfielder. At just 20, the academy graduate certainly looks an exciting prospect.
Still, perhaps the question from Bruce shouldn’t lean towards as to why he’d want to leave, but as to why he would want to stay for much longer than he’s agreed to.
After all, Newcastle are a side stuck in limbo. With Saudi Arabian-backed dreams crushed and an owner looking to take legal action against the Premier League because of it, it’s not as if the Magpies are looking as ambitious as the likes of even Leeds or Brighton. Those sides, who will surely be aiming for the top 10 along with Newcastle this season, have mangers with a distinct style of play, with Pep Guardiola noting his admiration for both Marcelo Bielsa and Graham Potter. Furthermore, both have exciting English talent such as Kalvin Phillips, Ben White, Solly March and Tariq Lamptey flourishing in the first-team. Throw in the fact he’s not playing – handed just 27 minutes in the post-lockdown period and not featuring at all in the league this season – and it’s hard to see what his boyhood club can offer him he couldn’t get elsewhere.
Udinese, meanwhile, may not be pulling up trees in Serie A, but could have offered Longstaff the chance to develop his game abroad, which has been a growing trend amongst British talent. Clearly, Jadon Sancho is operating at a higher level given he is a regular starter for a Champions League side in Borussia Dortmund but the likes of Ronaldo Vieira, Jonathan Panzo and Ademola Lookman have also been tempted away from these isles before. Speaking to the Guardian back in 2018, John De Jong (PSV’s head of scouting) said of young players from this country potentially looking to move abroad to mainland Europe: ”they see the chance of breaking into the first team here at a young age is much greater.”
An agreement was reached with Longstaff in the end, who spoke of how ‘special’ it is to play alongside his brother for his boyhood charges. Still, with no immediate route into the first-team at the moment and a club in limbo, Bruce’s indifference to the idea of changing scene to develop elsewhere arguably speaks to the kind of thinking that almost lost him. Mediocrity (relatively speaking) isn’t for everyone, after all. Longstaff hasn’t signed a long-term deal on Tyneside and, if they can’t offer him what others previously interested can, it’s not clear as to exactly why he’d want to stay at St. James’ Park much longer beyond the emotional pull.