It’s hard not to feel that right now that it’s a good time to be a Newcastle United fan.
The Mackems in League One.
The fact Rafael Benitez is still the manager of Newcastle United. Time to enjoy a nice end to the season for once.
Yet as we know all too well from the Mike Ashley reign, things can change quickly. This summer is critical for the future of the club, for that reason. We may be ending the season strongly, and need to enjoy the moment, but also be on our guard for August when the points are reset to zero.
Selling our better players has been something of a constant in the Ashley era. We have seen Andy Carroll, Yohan Cabaye, Gini Wijnaldum, Demba Ba and others depart SJP over recent years in the pursuit of profit, with little thought for the on field consequences.
Inevitably, such actions make staying in this division much harder, when this is the club policy. Eventually, trying to constantly replace your best players catches up with you. Just look at Southampton this season.
This summer feels like a crossroads for this exact reason. The takeover may dominate the early talk but it’s the squad strength that will be the real key for Rafa Benitez. Holding onto our best players will be crucial, particularly Ayoze Perez.
Perez in recent weeks has been magnificent, not just his crucial goals, but his all round play and movement. He has always shown glimpses of brilliance since his arrival in Toon, four years ago this summer.
Under Rafa Benitez though he has become a key cog in a well oiled machine, and looks better suited to English football than ever before. His strength in possession, and balance, is far better than during a slightly underwhelming season in the Championship last year.
The expert finishes against Huddersfield, Leicester and Arsenal showcase a player who has matured into arguably the best natural finisher at the club.
The goal against Leicester in particular was one of his best in four years at the club, aware of the positioning of all opposition players around him, before chipping Kasper Schmeichel exquisitely.
Like Lascelles, Dummett and even Jonjo Shelvey. Perez is a player who seems to be really benefiting from two years of Benitez style coaching. The flaws in his game seem far less exposed than they have been in previous seasons and there is no doubt that Rafa is a major factor in the resurgence.
He certainly sees Perez as a hugely important member of the team, even when others have criticised his position in the team.
This was demonstrated within months of Benitez’ arrival at SJP. For a number of games in the run-in, Rafa resolved that he could not play Perez and Gini Wijnaldum in the same XI. It was Perez who was given the starts, even though Wijnaldum was our top scorer at the time, and one of the few standout players in a poor team. He clearly saw something in Perez that he liked and since then he has looked a different player.
When he first arrived in England, Ayoze’s game seemed based around poaching and relying on brilliant instinctive finishing. He scored wonderful goals in his first season against West Brom (home and away) Liverpool and Arsenal but it was mainly pure penalty box play. His build-up play was hampered slightly by the physical demands of the Premier League.
Nowadays his movement and touch is so good he is a more complete player, the deft flicked assist for Matt Ritchie’s winner against Arsenal a fine example.
In recent weeks his form is so good it becomes inevitable he is linked with some of the bigger clubs in the division and in Europe. For once I would urge Ashley not to step in and name the price, even if that price is high, it is a must that Ayoze Perez stays.
He is almost the embodiment of all the improvements Rafael Benitez has overseen in two years at the club. If he was sold it would give Rafa cause for concern before committing to a new deal, regardless of who owns the club.
What we really need now is a season or two more of stability and really cement our top flight position. As has been proven time and time again in the Ashley years, it is almost impossible to do this when constantly selling your best players.
I for one, can’t wait to see how Rafa continues to improve not just Perez, but the likes of Dummett, Lascelles, Ritchie, even Joselu!
Of course we will also need summer additions as ever but the core of a good team is starting to show. Certainly one that can aim for another comfortable mid-table finish next season. Benitez seems to have the knack for getting the absolute maximum out of his players, highlighted by the fact Perez’ development has been remarkable since he arrived.
Even when we first signed Ayoze, he was also linked with Porto, Real Madrid and Barcelona, so expect some big clubs to be chasing him again in the near future. Especially if he keeps up current form to the end of the season.
The bids may come but let’s try and hold onto this one eh Mike? Rafa is building, he just needs to be allowed to do so, without the rug being pulled from under him.
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