It feels like an age since I wrote something that was actually about football. While it is important that the team’s good form doesn’t detract away from the protests against Mike Ashley off the pitch, it would be foolish not to recognise how well things have been turned around on the pitch.
Although the team did have an incredibly difficult set of fixtures at the start of the campaign, this was a team that not only had an underwhelming pre-season, didn’t win in their first 11 games of the new season, were knocked out of the cup by lower league opposition, and couldn’t muster up a single goal against the likes of Cardiff, Brighton, Palace, Southampton and Leicester.
It didn’t look good. While three wins on the bounce, and two very good performances against B’mouth and Burnley have shown that this team can stay up (and maybe avoid a relegation battle altogether), it is important not to get too ahead of ourselves. I got a text from one friend after the Burnley game which read “Are we going on a European tour next season?” A joke yes, but it wouldn’t be unusual for United fans to get ahead of ourselves.
Newcastle still sit only four points above the relegation zone. That is the reality and it is still going to be a long hard season in my opinion. However, on the pitch, what looked like somewhat of a lost cause now has some hope. Benitez continues to defy the odds.
In goal ,Martin Dubravka has shown himself to be just as reliable as he was last season. He may have been a little at fault for the goal the other night but those things, quite rightly, get overlooked when you are winning games and playing well yourself. For me, Dubravka is easily the best goalkeeper we have had since Shay Given. Certainly one of those cases in which you think to yourself “how the hell did we find this guy?” Or why weren’t other clubs trying to signing him too? Whoever it was that found him, it looks like a masterstroke.
DeAndre Yedlin at full back continues to impress me. I got a bit of stick last season because I constantly defended him, but at times, I would argue he is our most important player. You can’t underestimate the attacking option he provides from full back. Imagine how limited we would be attacking-wise if we had two Paul Dummetts at full back? By the same token, imagine how weak we would be if we had two DeAndre Yedlins at full back? Both full backs, Dummett and Yedlin, compliment each other perfectly and provide good balance to the side.
It is probably the first time in my lifetime that you can be so confident about United’s goalkeeper and back four as an entire unit. There has always been a Marcelino, Bramble or Boumsong type figure in the side but that can’t really be said of this lot. Especially at centre back, Newcastle have five very good, Premier League quality centre backs, do Man City even have that many? Fernandez has been the one who has impressed me the most so far this season, while we all know that Lascelles and Lejeune are capable of forming a good partnership. That leaves Clark and Schar, two international footballers, who when called upon this season haven’t let anyone down.
When you ask most people where we need to strengthen, no matter what transfer window it is, a common response is left back. I don’t think that is any reflection on Paul Dummett though. It is more to do with the lack of depth that we have in this area of the field. Although, as much as I don’t rate him, I think Manquillo has filled in well this season when asked. Dummett has had his fair share of criticism, much of it unfair in my opinion. I think Newcastle would have to pay top dollar, perhaps north of £12/13 million if we were to find a full back better than him. I look around the league at the likes of Cresswell or Bertrand and I am not sure if I would rather have them in our side than Dummett. That is probably the highest compliment I could pay him.
The middle of the park was an area that I thought was weak at the start of the season. We signed Ki, who I thought would be a decent signing, but I felt like we would need much more. It was always going to be naïve to expect Diame to keep up the same level of performance that he produced in the first half of 2018. Although he hasn’t produced at that same level, he certainly hasn’t dropped back to the original Diame. He has still chipped in with some great performances and been a willing runner in the engine room.
Without Shelvey I worry about us, but Ki has also stepped up to the plate ,with some great performance in the past few matches. Can those two play together? I am not sure. A centre midfielder, in the mould of a Tiote type player, would be on my transfer list come January, but for the moment everyone is doing their job to the best of their ability I think.
Out wide Kenedy is beginning to look like the player who came into the side in January. It is safe to say he looked a shadow of any footballer in the first few games of the season but he has stepped it up. With the likes of Atsu and Murphy not getting a look in, a lot of pressure has been on Kenedy and Ritchie to deliver.
In the no.10 role it could be said that Ayoze Perez is a man that divides opinion amongst the United fanbase. He has failed to perform so far this season, although he did chip in with a big moment at home to Watford. I think a no.10 should be our number one priority in January. What I will say about Perez is that this is his fifth season at United. Aside from his first season in which he played very well as often the main centre forward, and the purple patch between February and May last season, I think he has been pretty dreadful. When you celebrate the way he did against Watford, you also bring it on yourself.
As for the centre forwards, I honestly wasn’t sure about Rondon. To be honest, I am still not sure that we should be signing him for the quoted £15 million. He has had one brilliant, and one good, game in a Newcastle shirt so far. So again, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What is for sure is that for the moment, he is the best striker we have by a good distance. No disrespect intended to Joselu at all, who I still see as a half decent substitute to bring on… unless you are looking for a goal.
With some promising fixtures coming up perhaps we can start to look up the table rather than behind ourselves. There is no way we will win them all but there is also no way we will lose them all. Newcastle will pick up wins and draws in the next few games. Every point counts.
The points tally needed to stay up may be around 34/35, so if Newcastle can get to game 19 with 17 points, which I think is highly likely… then can they replicate that form again in the second half of the season? I think so. I find it hard to believe they will go on another 10 game winless run in the league.
Jamie Carragher said on Sky Sports at the start of the season that with Benitez in charge, there is no way Newcastle will be relegated. I thought it was a silly comment at the time that showed a lack of understanding for just how weak our squad was… although now, maybe I am starting to believe him!
You can follow the author on Twitter @JonathanComyn