Does Rafa Benitez have the players to save Newcastle United?
Frank Lampard meticulously analysed the slack defending of Jonjo Shelvey in the two goals conceded by Newcastle United against Bournemouth.
In fact, Shelvey’s actions in both goals remind me of Brazilian legend left back Roberto Carlos when Brazil conceded the solitary goal against France in the 2006 World Cup Quarter Final. Carlos was resting his hands on his knees whereas he was supposed to guard Thierry Henry, who was totally unmarked and tapped the ball into the net freely. Similarly, you can see Shelvey was a ball watcher in both occasions.
There is hardly any doubt that, in the Newcastle United squad, Jonjo Shelvey has the best ability to create something out of nothing with his visionary passes. On the contrary, his slack defending or moments of madness, cost vital points for the team. So, Shelvey is both an asset and a liability. But, the problem is, you never know which Shelvey you are going to see on a given day.
Now, the question is whether Rafa Benitez has anyone else at his disposal who can replace Shelvey?
If you consider the creative side, then the answer is a straightforward no. The other two central midfielders, Merino and Hayden, are both defensive minded. Merino has some creativity but Hayden is more a defensive midfielder, who lacks the quality at the creative core. But the problem with Merino is that he has not rediscovered his form after a prolonged back injury. So, Rafa does not have many choices in the central midfield position.
I was wondering how good were Alan Pardew’s 2011-12 midfield options that achieved the 5th place in the Premier League.
Yohan Cabaye (33 starts) and (the late) Cheick Tioté (23 starts) were the key central midfielders, where Cabaye played as the creative force and Tioté played the holding part. Quality wise, both Cabaye and Tioté were upgrades of Shelvey and Diamé respectively.
But, I sincerely believe it was the strikers – Demba Ba and Pappis Cissé, who made the difference. Both had the uncanny abilities to convert chances into goals (Ba 16, and Cissé 13 PL goals) that made the huge difference in that season. Plus, Leon Best (4) and Shola Ameobi (2) chipped in 6 more goals as centre forwards.
Another welcome 14 goals came from the central midfielders and wingers. So, out of 51 goals, the forwards scored 35 goals, and the midfielders 14, and the rest (2) came from a defender, Ryan Taylor. Hence, it is clear that the strikers scored 2.5 times more than the midfielders did (and this should be the case to be successful in any league).
However, if you see the statistics of this season, out of 26 goals – central forwards scored 12 goals, midfielders scored 9 goals, and the rest (5) were scored by the defenders. So pretty clear statistics that shows we have been missing goals from the central forwards (i.e. 22.48% less goals from the strikers compared to 2011-12 season), and hence suffering at the wrong end of the table. This is the reason Rafa was desperately trying to bolstering his squad with a proven goal scorer.
Well, some might say that Rafa failed to unpack the potential of Mitrovic, but we have to remember that Mitrovic was not one of Rafa’s recruitments; rather he was recruited by Steve McClaren, who, like Slaviša Jokanovič of Fulham, prefers to operate with wingers and crosses.
On the contrary, Rafa has taken a counter-attacking approach, so the strikers need speed, athleticism, and the right physicality to dodge the defenders. Unfortunately, Mitrovic could not provide what Rafa was looking for.
We are yet to see Islam Slimani in Newcastle colours, but lack of match fitness and the challenges to settling down with a new system and team members might not be helpful for Slimani to fire from the word go (if he ever gets fit).
Although Gayle scored twice against Bournemouth, his fitness for the top tier football is always questionable. Both Ayoze Perez and Joselu are very inconsistent as strikers, and cannot be relied on.
Rafa Benitez is a world class coach and players all around the world respect him a lot. No doubt that all Newcastle players fight for their manager (unlike the McClaren era), but most of these players either lack Premier League experience or quality, so they cannot implement Rafa’s blueprints and ensure results on the field.
Rafa Benitez could not strengthen his squad in the summer or winter the way he wanted. Fortunately enough for the supporters, Rafa did not walk away in the mid-season.
It is evident that, at this moment, Rafa does not have the players who could assure him of the PL safety, let alone lifting the team into the top half of the table.
Ten more matches are to be played, and I am afraid, even if Newcastle maintain the PL status (hope and pray they would), Rafa is going to walk away unless there is a takeover, or Ashley gives him a mammoth amount to spend to restructure and reshape his current squad in the summer, which is very unlikely.
Anyway, let’s hope for the best, and look forward to the next PL season with some exciting players and Rafa Benitez in charge.
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