Trying to read the mind of Rafa Benitez – which areas of the Newcastle United needs to be strengthened this summer?
One of Newcastle United’s loyal band of fans in India, Samidh Bhattacharyya, looks at the current squad and what is likely to happen with players in and out this summer – in this his first article for The Mag.
Newcastle United: a football club that was once known as “The Entertainers” for playing a unique brand of swashbuckling football, a club that is now accused of foolishly living in the past with unrealistic dreams of titles and silverware, and a club that suddenly sees the potential to establish itself as a true heavyweight in European football within the next few years.
A bit too much to hope for? Perhaps. But that’s how we, Newcastle fans, are. We expect/hope for a team that we eat, sleep and breathe do us justice by producing performances, and hopefully results, to be proud of. And we’ve waited for a long time to have a team which does that. But, times are changing.
Under the able guidance of Rafa Benitez, Newcastle have secured promotion to the Premier League at the first time asking. What’s more, the owner Mike Ashley has recently promised the Champions League winning manager full support and financial means to build. This makes for a summer that can very well define Newcastle United for the next few years to come.
In this article, I take a look at which areas Benitez might look to strengthen over the next couple of months. The analysis is based on our current squad and media/social media rumours that have inevitably started. Just to be clear, I have assumed that Rafa will be play his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation in the Premier League also.
Tim Krul, Karl Darlow, Rob Elliot, Matz Sels.
Analysis – This is one area Newcastle really doesn’t have to worry about. With four top class keepers and the extremely talented Freddie Woodman also waiting in the wings, Rafa may well feel that there’s an overabundance of talent. With such intense competition, a few of the players may also request for transfer if they don’t see themselves playing enough this season.
I can see two goalies leaving the club this season. I wouldn’t be surprised if Krul is sold to generate some reasonable funds for the other positions, with Sels being sent on loan and Woodman being brought into the first team fold as a squad member.
Verdict- 2 outgoing. 0 incoming.
Defenders: Centre backs (2 positions)
Ciaran Clark, Grant Hanley, Jamaal Lascelles, Chancel Mbemba.
Explanation- Just four players available for the backbone of defence, out of which one has hardly played this season and other perhaps not cut out for the Premier League. I am talking of course, about Mbemba and Hanley, respectively.
Most fans agree that this is a problem area for Newcastle and it is almost certain that Rafa will bolster our defence in the summer. I expect Hanley to be sold this summer. He is one of the ‘Championship specialists’ Rafa bought last summer. Given his age and lack of experience in the Premier League, I feel the club would want to get as much money as possible from his transfer with the maximum time left in his contract.
Mbemba would probably not be sold given his performances towards the end of the season and his versatility- he has played both as right back and defensive midfielder (for his country) in the past.
I expect Rafa to bring in 2 players in this position. One of them would certainly be first team ready and the likes of Harry McGuire and Eliaquim Mangala are being suggested.
The other may be a fringe player with potential, perhaps even on loan. It’d be someone who would learn from the experience in Premier League and be an automatic choice couple of years down the line.
Verdict- 1 outgoing. 2 incoming.
Defenders: Full backs (2 positions)
Vurnon Anita, Paul Dummett, Jesus Gamez, Massadio Haidara, Achraf Lazaar, Jamie Sterry, DeAndre Yedlin
Explanation- Out of the seven names mentioned, only Anita, Dummett and Yedlin have played enough for onlookers to pass a judgement on their merits.
Dummett has been almost ever present in the playing eleven under Benitez and Yedlin has impressed as well. Anita’s contract runs out this summer but I won’t be surprised if he is given a new one owing to his steady performances and versatility. All three also have experience of playing in the Premier League.
Gamez may also be retained due to his past experience of playing against top opposition despite not having played much last season.
Lazaar is a curious case who was bought by Benitez but failed to make it into the first team starting eleven in the Championship. I think the logical thing to do is probably send him on loan for the season just to gauge his ability in the English league.
Haidara on the other hand, has been plagued by too many injuries and he may well be let go come summer. As for Sterry, he is still a little raw and could be sent on loan depending on the squad strength.
Rafa will definitely bring in more cover, especially for the LB position. I think he will bring in a first team ready left sided full back to compete with Dummett, and keep one among Gamez and Lazaar as backup. For RB, if Anita is given a contract, Rafa may just bring in another cover. If Anita is let go however, I can see Rafa bring in two players for this position.
Verdict- 2-3 outgoing. 2-3 incoming.
Midfielders: Central (2 positions)
Jack Colback, Mo Diame, Isaac Hayden, Jonjo Shelvey, Henri Saivet
Explanation – It is imperative that the two players in these positions have an eye for attack and more importantly, the grit to protect the back four. Shelvey, who in my opinion can play for any top side on his day, and Hayden were the top performers last season. The absence of either for brief periods exposed how vulnerable Newcastle could be without them. Colback and Diame can both be good squad players for these positions but neither are good enough to start based on last season’s performances. It is also rumored the Saivet is keen on leaving and I can totally see that happening. Other than him, it’d be a surprise if anyone else from the remaining four is sold.
Instead, I feel Rafa would make his ‘marquee’ signing for this position. Be it Tom Cairney or Yaya Toure (some of the names we are being linked to), I think he would look for someone with more attacking flair and can compete with Shelvey.
In fact, my hunch is he will make a signing that will make a statement, someone in the mould of Gerrard or Xavi Alonso. Hayden proved that he may be ready for the Premier League, and between him, Colback and Diame we should have enough defensive minded midfielders.
It is also likely that Rafa will bring someone like Daniel Barlaser from the U21 into the first team squad as cover, just in case there is an injury emergency or suspension crisis, and a total of around 6 players for these 2 positions should be enough to see us through the season.
Verdict- 1 out. 1 in.
Midfielders: Wide (2 positions)
Rolando Aarons, Sammy Ameobi, Christian Atsu (on loan), Yoan Gouffran, Matt Ritchie, Florian Thauvin
Explanation – Florian Thauvin has met the minimum matches clause and he is as good as gone, so let’s just get that out of the way. From the rest, other than Ritchie, no one really comes across as a first team starter. Atsu has done well in patches and Gouffran is a much improved player under Rafa, but neither would get into a good Premier League starting eleven. In fact, I expect two out of Aarons, Ameobi and Gouffran to leave this summer. Gouffran’s contract expires but he has extensive Premier League experience and is Dirk Kuyt-ish kind of a player Rafa likes. If he is given a new contract, it may well mean bye-bye for Aarons and Ameobi. That pretty much leaves Ritchie with one other player from the current crop for the two wide positions.
Unless there are issues we’re unaware of, I expect Benitez to sign Atsu. He has had a year with the squad and has shown his talent, or flashes of it at least. He does have quality but will need at least one season to become a first team regular at this level.
Even if we sign him, however, we’ll still be short on cover. Players like Perez, Toney, Lazaar, Yedlin can all play in these positions but I feel Benitez would bring in at least two first team ready players for these positions, and one more as cover. Expect to see hard working wingers like Ritchie and don’t be surprised if Benitez reignites interest in the likes of Knockaert and Townsend.
Verdict- 3 out. 4 in.
Ayoze Perez, Siem De Jong
Explanation – Simply put, not enough reliability for this position. Perez showed how good he can be towards the end of the season but goes missing on the field far too often. De Jong, on the other hand, has quality but spends most his time injured.
However, both can perform at the Premier League level. And as Shelvey, Diame or even Gouffran can all do a job in this position, I expect Rafa to convince Perez and De Jong to spend at least one more season on Tyneside.
Benitez may look to bring in an attack minded playmaker only if he gets a good deal. If not, he will probably get in a young cover at best. He may also, instead of buying from another club, just look to bring in a youngster like a Sean Longstaff in the folds of the first team squad.
Verdict- 0 outgoing. 0-1 incoming.
Dwight Gayle, A. Mitrovic, Daryl Murphy, Emmanuel Riviere, Adam Armstrong, Ivan Toney.
Explanation- Riviere would be gone, which would probably be good for both parties. Both Armstrong and Toney have played for their respective sides well last season, but I’d be surprised if one of them isn’t sold this summer. Armstrong certainly looks the more promising, so expect Toney to be sold to a mid-table league side for reasonable money.
Murphy, just like Hanley, was a ‘Championship expert’ brought in to achieve immediate promotion. However, he certainly has performed equally as well as Mitrovic, if not better. Hence, as much as I’ll hate it happening, Rafa may well sell Mitrovic for a much larger sum of money and use Murphy as the target-man striker in the squad.
Rafa will also surely go for a proven goal scorer at the top level. I expect him to make his second ‘marquee’ signing for this position, and back it up with a cover from the Championship, especially if Armstrong/Toney is sent out on loan.
Verdict- 2-3 outgoing. 1-2 incoming.
Total- 11-12 outgoing. 12-13 incoming.
Needless to say this is just my opinion piece and I would love it if you share your opinions on the same.
Please do share it among friends as well so that it reaches maximum people.
Till next time… #HowayTheLads
(All contributions from Newcastle fans welcome, send articles (as well as ideas/suggestions) to [email protected])