Five talking points as Newcastle get to grips with Championship life
What’s Plan A for Newcastle United?
With Aleksandar Mitrovic available once again, it will be interesting to see where he fits into Rafa Benitez’s plans.
Papiss Cissé was the preferred starter in the lone striker role last season and Dwight Gayle has so far been entrusted with leading the line in each of the Magpies’ opening four games. However, despite Gayle hitting a rich vein of scoring form, a lack of physicality up front has been an issue for Newcastle and it would seem logical for Mitrovic to lead the line now that he has served his four game ban.
Benitez is not without his footballing ideals and principles and he clearly favours a 4-2-3-1 formation – meaning that Gayle would likely be played as a Number 10, or shifted out to one of the wide roles, to accommodate Mitrovic as a focal point in attack.
Benitez, however, is also a realist and a pragmatist and is not averse to a ‘horses for courses’ selection policy from game to game, which could well see a variety of formations and game plans implemented as and when he sees fit.
So, while Mitrovic’s return provides the Newcastle boss with a seemingly obvious Plan A, the Serb’s hot-headedness and indiscipline are a big issue for Benitez and he will need to channel his aggression in a much more positive manner if he is to become a permanent fixture in the Spaniard’s starting XI.
Struggling to cope with the physicality of life in the Championship, far from being one of the Magpies’ stand-out performers, Ayoze Perez has sadly looked ill-equipped to play a prominent role in Newcastle’s promotion push this season.
With Dwight Gayle already impressing with his finishing prowess and the returning Aleksandar Mitrovic possessing the physicality that Newcastle have been badly lacking in the final third, jack-of-all-trades Perez is in danger of finding himself frozen out.
Capable of slotting into any of the forward slots yet lacking the strength, creativity or goal-scoring ability to become master of one, the young Spaniard, who has been coveted by Man Utd, Spurs and Barcelona (ED: Allegedly!!!) in recent times, needs to quickly get to grips with life in the second tier if he is to avoid becoming an irrelevance.
Defensive confusion derails hopes for settled side?
While the Championship schedule is undoubtedly difficult and demanding, one thing that all successful sides have in common is a settled defensive unit. Accordingly, it has been no small source of stress to Newcastle fans to see a different back four line-up in each of the opening four league games.
While there are cogent arguments to be made either way regarding the wisdom of dropping new captain Jamaal Lascelles against Reading, Lascelles and Chancel Mbemba starting together at Bristol City did at least mean that they were chosen as the first choice centre-back pairing for a second time – a move that hopefully shows that Rafa is starting to get a clearer idea of what his best side might be. A first clean sheet of the campaign suggests that he is on the right track.
However, the full-back positions remain a source of confusion as new arrival Jesus Gamez and Swiss youngster Kevin Mbabu are yet to feature, Massadio Haidara is still not match fit and the crowd-rousing, arm-waving Dutchman Daryl Janmaat looks increasingly likely to move on before the end of August, not that Newcastle’s fans will be unduly concerned about his departure.
Teacher’s pet Vurnon Anita has recently returned to the right-back berth that he impressed in at the end of last season and will hopefully continue there.
So, it is the left-back role that now poses the most questions as Paul Dummett has endured a torrid start to the campaign and new boy Ciaran Clark seems more likely to feature as cover than as a first team regular. Everton’s Brendan Galloway has been mentioned as a possible loan arrival but Benitez would do well to sign a specialist left-back on a permanent deal and decide on a settled back four as soon as possible.
Ironically, while the constant chopping and changing of the back four has been a concern for the Newcastle faithful, it is the trust being shown in new goalkeeper Matz Sels that is more unnerving. Benitez has already spoken of the importance of squad depth and rotation on numerous occasions – but only in relation to the outfield players. The Belgian stopper has been far from convincing so far, flapping at crosses, getting caught out of position and generally inducing panic amongst the back line.
With Lascelles and Mbemba looking likely to form the first-choice central defensive partnership, it is imperative that they are playing in front of a competent and confident goalkeeper whom they trust.
With honorary Geordie Tim Krul nearing the exit door and last season’s stand-out performer Rob Elliot still a couple of months away from being fully match fit, Sels has time to grow into the role and prove his worth but Newcastle fans’ patience will quickly evaporate if his seemingly all-too-frequent rushes of blood to the head start costing the team vital league points.
The Belgian stopper has been lucky that his errors have so far gone unpunished and while Saturday’s clean sheet at Ashton Gate should give him confidence, it seems likely that the somewhat unfairly-usurped Karl Darlow will start in the League Cup during the week and, assuming Newcastle’s safe passage to the next round, Darlow should feature again in mid-September and will be keen to prove his worth. Any more shaky performances from Sels in the meantime and once fit, Elliot could find himself vying for top spot with the young Englishman rather than this summer’s surprise arrival from Gent.
Coming in from the cold
If you had asked 100 Newcastle fans to make a list of players who would be surplus to requirements ahead of this season’s Championship campaign, no eyebrows would have been raised had the name of Yoan Gouffran appeared on every single list.
Eyebrows were raised, however, when he was named in the starting XI against Reading on Wednesday night. He duly put in a solid if unspectacular performance, keeping his place in the side for the visit to Bristol City at the weekend.
A limited but workmanlike performer, Gouffran’s form dipped over the years after an impressive first season on Tyneside and he had been written off by many long before Alan Pardew’s reign had even come to an end.
Benitez this week himself admitted that he had earmarked Gouffran as a likely early departure this summer and praised the Frenchman for his professionalism in these turbulent times.
While he may well be sold before August is out and will surely be only a bit-part player if he does stay on at St James Park, it is refreshing to see one of Newcastle’s underperforming foreign imports keep his counsel and put in the hard graft on the training ground, instead of moaning about his plight in the press like so many have before him and Moussa Sissoko continues to do.
It shows Gouffran in a good light and also highlights Benitez’s practical and pragmatic side – making the most of all the resources at his disposal while also doing his best to keep everyone motivated and buying into his vision.
So, while question marks remain over the futures of the likes of Emmanuel Riviere, Cheick Tiote and others, it will be a source of comfort to these players and the fans alike that Benitez will give anyone who commits to the club a fair crack of the whip.
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