It is rarely easy to predict any Rafa Benitez line-up.
However, Saturday afternoon has seen maybe one of his stranger and more unlikely looking ones.
After seven defeats and a draw in the last eight matches, we all wondered what Rafa would go with…
Just in case you hadn’t seen it already, this is who Rafa Benitez starts with:
Elliot, Yedlin, Lascelles, Lejeune, Manquillo, Hayden, Merino, Murphy, Atsu, Perez, Joselu
and the Subs:
Darlow, Clark, Dummett, Aarons, Diame, Ritchie, Gayle
Rafa Benitez making five changes – Elliot, Murphy, Hayden, Perez, Joselu all coming in – and Darlow, Shelvey, Ritchie, Diame, Gayle all dropping out.
Elliot for Darlow was always going to happen and I think when we are looking for the manager’s reasoning on the rest, it isn’t too hard to find.
Rafa may have a poor team/squad but it is still a team/squad that he has to manage the best way he can and try to give it the best chance of picking up points in the weeks and months ahead.
It is telling that four of the five changes are in the front six, with the manager looking to protect players in positions most susceptible to injury.
Dwight Gayle has just played all three hours of the two home defeats in a four day period, whilst Matt Ritchie had started every Premier League game so far.
You might not think either were great on Wednesday night but if Newcastle are to get out of trouble this pair will be essential to it, especially Gayle with three goals in his last five starts.
At Arsenal we were always very very likely to get beat, no matter who was selected. Far better to have Dwight Gayle able to come on in the final 20 minutes to try and snatch a goal, if the team can stay level up until then, or only one down.
Rafa Benitez isn’t sacrificing this game against the Gunners but I do think he is looking at the bigger picture.
After this afternoon, four of the next five matches are against West Ham, Brighton, Stoke and Swansea (we’ll not mention Manchester Ci…).
The United boss needs to make sure Gayle, Ritchie and others will be around for those challenges, the kind of matches on which our season/survival will stand or fall on.