Rafa Benitez and Newcastle United have enjoyed a solid if unspectacular start to their Championship campaign, sitting third in the table as we headed into the October international break.
The Magpies remain on a high after back-to-back wins, with a sensational 4-3 win over Norwich City being followed up by a hard-fought 1-0 triumph at Rotherham United.
I don’t know about you but I’m still feeling a tad giddy after that result over the Canaries!
Snatching those two goals in stoppage time to turn a damaging defeat into a huge victory, had to cap off one of the best nights of football St James Park has experienced in a long time, even if it came in England’s second tier.
The comeback throughout the second half of the game taught us a number of things about this Newcastle side, but for me, what stood out is that we could be absolutely devastating if we get more minutes out of the forward combination of Dwight Gayle and Aleksandar Mitrovic.
We know that Benitez isn’t a big fan of the 4-4-2 system, and the only times we’ve seen Mitrovic and Gayle paired together have been against Norwich and, before that, late on the defeat to Wolves.
On both occasions the two were only together on the pitch in an attempt to overturn a deficit. Against Wolves it failed to produce but against Norwich it worked wonders.
Both Gayle and Mitrovic have their critics, both have missed chances, and Mitrovic was often found guilty of doing the same last year. But I believe the two complement each other incredibly well and if given enough game time to play together (not just as a last-ditch attempt to get back into a match), they could be devastating.
Gayle has had a good start to his Newcastle career with seven goals to his name so far, including a hat-trick in that euphoric game against Norwich.
True, Gayle could (and should) have hit five or six by the time he rolled in the 96th minute winner, but he has plenty of attributes to be admired in a striker.
He was criticised for his one-on-one miss at Aston Villa when Newcastle were leading 1-0 but I’d say it was a more difficult chance than it looked.
His positioning skills are very impressive. Gayle has the predatory ‘right place/right time’ instincts you crave your strikers to have. He has pace to burn and is a very, very hard worker – what’s not to love about that?
When Mitrovic came on alongside Gayle against Norwich, the game was turned on its head. Norwich had been thoroughly outplayed and should never have been in the match let alone possessing a 3-1 lead that night. The Serbian international entered the game at 3-2 and the chances immediately flowed.
That’s what the Serbian striker (watch his two goals on Sunday night HERE) does, he makes things happen. With him being in the box, it gives opposition defenders much, much more work to do, allowing players like Gayle to escape attention and get into more goal-scoring positions.
Mitrovic isn’t a quality finisher, we’ve all seen evidence of that, but he makes the players around him play so much better with his strength, hold-up play, and ability to act as a focal point.
He gives Newcastle a purpose in times where they lack ideas. It’s no coincidence that Newcastle bagged six in Mitrovic’ only league start so far this season.
After the defeat to Wolves a lot of Newcastle fans were quick to turn on the former Anderlecht forward. It’s true that there is a lot of hype around the 22-year-old when a lot of it could be considered unjustified judging by his scoring record – but in my eyes there is a lot more to a striker than his ability to finish.
A lot more fans are following the growing analytics movement in football and pay a lot of interest in the ‘expected goals’ model.
Although it’s true that if you analyse the Mitrovic stats, he scores less goals than he should, but the chances that Newcastle create with him on the pitch are always far higher than without. The team is more likely to score goals, either through him or his teammates.
For context, Robert Lewandowski is in a similar position. He’s not a great finisher and actually misses a lot of good chances, yet is one of the world’s best strikers.
Now I’m not saying that Mitrovic is on the same level as Lewandowski, but he shouldn’t be given so much stick for his finishing ability when he offers as much as he does elsewhere.
I do think a combination of Mitrovic and Gayle this season could, and will, produce the goods for Newcastle, but it may be one we rarely see, given Rafa’s preference of the 4-2-3-1 system.
Of course I don’t know anything in comparison to Benitez, and I would never claim to, but I do think it’s an idea that should be considered a bit more.
You can follow the author on Twitter @RhysMelhuish22