When Newcastle United’s owners arrived in October, they asked Steve Nickson, the head of recruitment, to name players admired by his scouting department but who, under the previous regime, were unrealistic targets.
Principal among those was Sven Botman, a centre-back who was widely seen as one of the continent’s most-promising defensive prospects.
In theory, Botman was an ideal fit for Mike Ashley’s blueprint — young, talented and with significant sell-on potential. But, before the takeover, Nickson knew Newcastle could not compete financially to secure him and, perhaps more importantly, could not entice the Dutchman with an ambitious vision for progress.
Last summer, when Steve Bruce sought a left-sided centre-back, Botman was therefore never seriously considered as a realistic “option” — Manchester United’s Axel Tuanzebe and Arsenal’s William Saliba were among those approached — even if he was coveted.
Once the consortium was in control, however, the outlook was transformed. And, even though Newcastle were languishing in the Premier League relegation zone and winless, Botman was identified as a player of interest for the mid-season window.
Crucially, once Eddie Howe was in place as head coach, he was also convinced by Botman. That every member of Newcastle’s recruitment team — Howe, Nickson, Amanda Staveley and Jamie Reuben, the co-owners, and Dan Ashworth, the recently installed sporting director — gave their unanimous approval is indicative of the regard in which Botman is held on Tyneside.
The 22-year-old is viewed as an all-round, technical defender with good distribution and who, at 6ft 4in, possesses the physicality and athleticism to thrive in England.
Botman’s league career
|Club (division)||Season||Appearances (sub)||Minutes played||Goals||Assists|
Jong Ajax (Eerste Divisie)
Lille (Ligue 1)
Lille (Ligue 1)
Newcastle’s conviction that Botman can develop into a top-class Premier League centre-half is why they never gave up on him, despite a six-month saga that, at times, became exasperating. Yet, feeling vindicated by their patient approach, the club rightly recognise Botman as their statement summer signing — a continuation of their policy of luring Europe’s “Next Best Thing” before they reach their expensive prime, following Bruno Guimaraes’ January arrival.
Inside five days, weeks of frustration at slow transfer progress have been extinguished by two uplifting arrivals.
Nick Pope, the England goalkeeper, joined from Burnley for £11 million on Thursday, before a €37 million (£31.8 million) fee, which would rise to €40 million (£34.4 million), was agreed with Lille for Botman, who has signed a five-year contract and passed a medical, with only the formalities of the deal yet to be completed. Ajax are believed to be due 10 per cent of Lille’s resale profit, having received €9 million (£7.7 million) for Botman in 2020.
Newcastle’s next priority is to add goals; it has been all summer, even if two defenders and a goalkeeper have joined first.
The Hugo Ekitike deal is proving tortuous to conclude with the player’s representatives, even though the framework of a fee has been agreed with Reims, leading Newcastle to seriously consider moving on to alternative strikers. A right-sided forward is wanted, with Howe keen for a winger who can bring goals and provide assists, although Bayer Leverkusen’s Moussa Diaby may prove too expensive.
Still, even if Financial Fair Play regulations do somewhat temper Newcastle’s spending capacity, the backing of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), the 80 per cent majority owners, proved decisive on this occasion. AC Milan may be Serie A champions but they could not match Newcastle’s offer.
The debate surrounding where Botman wanted to move is a moot point, but he did flirt with Newcastle and Milan throughout the process.
His representatives made it clear that Botman was intrigued by Newcastle’s project in December, despite their then-perilous league position, and Staveley told The Athletic in February that the centre-back “wanted to come”. Botman revealed his appreciation for Newcastle’s “great project”, admitting that “I thought it would be fun to be a part of it”.
Yet he was open with his admiration for Milan, with claims in Italy that the San Siro was his “dream” destination. That narrative was given extra credence when Botman’s camp appeared to offer Milan additional time to reach a deal with Lille.
In truth, although Newcastle continued dialogue post-January, by April, they feared Botman was headed for Milan. Botman remained Newcastle’s top centre-back target but they sent out enquiries for alternatives, including Manchester City’s Nathan Ake and Bournemouth’s Lloyd Kelly. Newcastle did not seriously compete again for Diego Carlos, who they attempted to acquire from Sevilla in January, preferring younger alternatives. James Tarkowski, a free agent after leaving Burnley, was only viewed as a back-up.
Milan’s impending takeover by RedBird Capital Partners complicated matters for them, however, and, while Paolo Maldini, the technical director, was adamant they needed Botman, other board members did not believe it prudent to recruit an expensive centre-back, particularly given Pierre Kalulu’s rise. And, with Lille keen to resolve Botman’s future by June 30, Milan had to pull out, even if there remained a slight lingering concern on Tyneside that Maldini’s keenness could lead to an 11th-hour hijack.
Eventually, Newcastle’s perseverance paid off and it was Ashworth who concluded the deal. During his first week as sporting director, Ashworth had even watched Botman for Netherlands Under-21s in Llanelli. Ashworth may have chiefly been there for his son, Zachary, the Wales defender, but the trip doubled up as a scouting mission.
Throughout, Newcastle found Lille difficult to deal with. Although the French club made it clear Botman was not for sale mid-season and rejected at least two bids, their negotiating stance this summer regularly changed, meaning the Premier League side found themselves believing a deal was close, only for fresh demands to emerge. Once Ashworth arrived, he informed Lille this was their final, take-it-or-leave-it offer and, with Milan unable to match it, Newcastle had their man.
It means Howe has new signings to welcome to pre-season training on Friday, as he desired. But, while attacking reinforcements are now being sought, Newcastle know they need to offload players — to free up space in the wage budget and to reduce their bloated squad. Isaac Hayden and Freddie Woodman are the only two departees so far and Newcastle have 32 senior players on their books.
Since the turn of the year, Newcastle have signed an entirely new back five, and the improvement under Howe has been built on a solid defence. Power and athleticism, allied with a desire to make them a more physically dominant side, have been prominent in Howe’s thinking.
Mid-season, Howe sought a left-sided centre-back, but this summer he was open to signing a defender who could play in either position, even if Botman was the primary target. Howe prefers the “balance” of a left-footer and right-footer together, suggesting Schar may be favourite to retain his starting place. Yet it is understood that Howe is not necessarily wedded to that approach and is open to playing two left-footers.
Jamaal Lascelles, the club captain, will only be pushed further down the pecking order and, although there will be increasing questions surrounding his long-term future, as things stand he looks set to be the fourth centre-half in the squad. Ciaran Clark has been made available and Federico Fernandez could leave, but Paul Dummett, who is also able to play centre-half, provides a back-up option after agreeing a one-year extension.
What is more, Botman’s profile, which is different to that of Pope and Matt Targett, is illustrative of the type of player Newcastle will ideally recruit. They desire younger players, many European-based, who bring with them a calculated risk, given the need to acclimatise, but who have the capacity to grow with the club.
Although he may have played only three full league campaigns — one in the Netherlands and two in France — Botman has accrued impressive experience, winning the Ligue 1 title in 2020-21 and making five Champions League appearances last season.
He has captained Netherlands’ Under-21s and there is bemusement as to why he has yet to feature for the senior side, though he was an unused substitute for two Nations League matches in November 2020, and his nation is blessed with an abundance of quality centre-backs, including Virgil van Dijk and Matthijs de Ligt.
At the Stade Pierre-Mauroy, Botman struck up an excellent understanding with Jose Fonte, the former Crystal Palace, Southampton and West Ham centre-back, and regularly asked the Portugal international about the Premier League, particularly once Newcastle’s interest became formalised.
During an interview with The Athletic in May 2021, Botman admitted he was attracted by the prospect of playing in England. “The Premier League is one of the leagues I dreamed about… but also Serie A, La Liga, the Bundesliga,” he said. “The Premier League is something special. It’s the football I really like and that fits me. The style of play, the emotion.”
Botman may be a product of Ajax’s acclaimed academy, but he never made a first-team appearance for the club. Following a season with their reserves in Netherlands’ second tier, Botman enjoyed a successful loan at Heerenveen in the Eredivisie in 2019-20. That is where Luis Campos, Lille’s then-sporting director, spotted him.
He immediately impressed in France and, as Lille clinched the title, Botman was linked with moves to top European clubs, including Liverpool.
Milan’s much-admired data team had their interest piqued, but Newcastle’s recruitment department believe Botman is primed for English football due to his aerial dominance, passing ability and physicality.
There are few in France who could compete with Botman in the air. According to Fbref.com, via data from Statsbomb, Botman had an impressive 73.3 per cent aerial duel win ratio.
“My strength is the mentality to get clean sheets. Doing everything not to concede is important to me,” Botman said, citing Winston Bogarde, the former Chelsea defender who coached him at Ajax, as inspiring that mindset. “Individually, you have to win your duels. I love to be in duels with strikers and win them.”
One example of his defensive strength aerially came against Chelsea in the Champions League in February. Shown below, Kai Havertz crosses and, in his determination to prevent Hakim Ziyech winning the header, Botman jumps and knocks the Chelsea winger and Fonte out of the way to reach the ball.
In the opposition box, he can be a nuisance. Botman scored three goals last season and provided one assist. Against Montpellier in August, he rose highest to head across to Burak Yilmaz. Although Yilmaz missed, this rehearsed ploy aimed to make use of Botman’s heading power.
When it comes to tackling, Botman is not seen as being rash. He won 1.0 tackles per 90 last season and provided 2.2 blocks, 1.5 interceptions and 4.8 clearances.
Often, Botman prefers to use his physicality and deceptive speed to steal possession. An example is shown against Monaco in May, when Botman opts to merely muscle his opponent off the ball, rather than tackle him.
He committed just 0.04 errors leading to an opposition shot per 90 in 2021-22 and across two seasons at Lille he did not make a single mistake that directly led to an opposition goal.
However, when attempting tackles, Botman does have a fondness for sliding in. Against Clermont in March, Botman challenges Salis Abdul Samed near the touchline and, while many defenders would have stayed on their feet, Botman slides with his right foot.
As he committed just 0.8 fouls per 90, though, seemingly he does not regularly mistime those tackles.
Yet Botman is not merely about brawn. He is comfortable with both feet and is renowned for providing cross-field passes or through balls with his left foot. In 2020-21, he completed the third-most passes in Ligue 1, with a pass completion rate of 86 per cent, as Lille claimed the title.
Last season, according to Fbref.com, Botman completed 53.2 passes per 90, with an 89.1 per cent completion rate — which is a more accurate return than any Newcastle player in 2021-22. He enjoyed 70.1 touches per 90, almost half of which were in the “middle third” of the pitch, showing he is comfortable playing around the halfway line, where Howe wants his defenders to be.
As for “long” passes — more than 30 yards in length — Botman completed 9.8 per 90, with a 77.7 per cent accuracy ratio.
His distribution will aid Newcastle in that he can mirror Schar, who offers similar cross-field passes but with his right foot. An example of Botman spreading play is shown below for Netherlands Under-21s against Switzerland in August.
One weakness that Newcastle are thought to have noted is how Botman can be caught on the turn and whether he could be exploited for pace in England. Yet this is not viewed as a massive deficiency; it is something Newcastle believe they can work on.
There is an acceptance that Botman may take a little time to adjust to the Premier League but, with the Dutchman able to speak fluent English and Newcastle’s background checks detailing a player with outstanding work ethic and desire to improve, they are confident he will prove to have been worth the wait.
From the start, the consortium earmarked Botman as the defender who can develop in line with Newcastle and help take them to the top. Now Newcastle have finally signed him, there is genuine excitement internally to see what he can deliver.
(Top photo: Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images)
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Sven Botman: The poster-boy signing for the new Newcastle
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