I have to hold my hands up and stay at the very start of last season, I did not believe Newcastle United would go down. There a number of reasons for this.
One of them, was the fact that Newcastle had actually done something they hadn’t done in a long time. They signed a defender. A centre-half even, a proper one, for an actual transfer fee.
When he first arrived, Chancel Mbemba did not disappoint. He looked to have all the raw ingredients of a future top-class centre half. He had composure, strength, was good in the air and quick as well. His positioning and decision making needs improvement but surely that will come with years of experience under his belt. People seem to forget he was only 20 when he arrived.
It started pretty well. He looked solid on his debut against Southampton in the opening game of the season. He even turned up in a Tuxedo – what’s not to like?
Although as we all know the season under McClaren quickly began to unravel, Mbemba always seemed to be the victim of a team with a poor defensive set-up. In the odd bright moments of a dreadful campaign he was often at the heart of all things right. A brilliant performance in the 1-0 win at Bournemouth, the most obvious example.
Chancel Mbemba ended up making 33 Premier League starts last season, and although the competition was poor, most fans would have named him as our best defender.
What has happened to Chancel this season is something of a mystery. Rafa didn’t select him to start in the very first game of the season at Fulham as he was coming back from an injury, instead going for a partnership of Lascelles and Hanley at centre-half.
Hanley looked sluggish and off the pace on his debut, leading to Mbemba’s recall the following week against Huddersfield. At the time this looked like a straightforward call. It was at this point things started to go wrong for the man from DR Congo.
With the game at 1-1, with eight minutes to go, Mbemba made the most classic ball-playing centre half mistake imaginable. Down by the touchline, a simple clearance into row Z would have been good game management. Instead he tried to play, got caught and the Terriers broke away to snatch a winner, inflicting a second straight defeat.
A month later at home to Wolves, worst was to follow. Mbemba headed straight past Mat Sels to lead us on the way to another crucial defeat. For the next league game at Villa, he was dropped, with Ciaran Clark brought in at centre-half. Clark was duly awarded ‘man of the match’ and has not looked back since, with a string of brilliant performances- he could even be a contender for player of the season.
With Lascelles captain, and therefore difficult to drop, Mbemba has found opportunities limited, not helped by the fact he missed nearly a month of the season due to the African cup of nations.
Now he is back in the squad, will he manage to get himself back into Rafa’s first XI?
Making himself more versatile would be a start towards regular football. Yes, he is still young and learning his trade, but Mbemba has all the natural attributes to play anywhere along the back four. Paul Dummett still looks incapable of playing at a high-enough tempo to play in a truly good team. He is not quick enough going forward and mistakes never seem far away.
At right-back DeAndre Yedlin looks great going forward but may come unstuck defensively and failed to shift Anita from the team for a large chunk of the campaign.
It is clear that Rafa doesn’t like to rotate the back four as much as the rest of the team but it still feels like we could have a very good defender on our hands if he is given the chances.
With Clark in great form and Lascelles such a key figure in the dressing room, Mbemba may have a much better chance of getting back in if he can challenge for a spot at full back. He is certainly good enough on the ball to play there and surely a manager like Rafa can mould him into a more versatile, useful player.
We will need Chancel Mbemba next season if we go back up. He still might be our best defender, who just hasn’t had the chance to show it.
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