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Opinion

Newcastle United Midfield conundrum – Potential problems and possible solutions

3 weeks ago
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Despite a solid mid-table finish, Steve Bruce’s Newcastle United midfield needs surgery to ensure survival next season

With a solid, if at times hard to watch, mid-table finish seemingly inevitable for Steve Bruce’s side, it must be said that it seems to be the only certainty facing the Magpies for the foreseeable future.

The once seemingly ‘nailed on’ Public Investment Fund takeover has hit more icebergs than the Titanic on repeat, with the takeover apparently sinking further and further into the cold depths of doubt and Premier League bureaucracy.

As journalists scramble to appraise fans of the murky details of the stalled Saudi takeover bid, international broadcast deals and a potential American bid (all with the hearsay of a Cosmo gossip column), football on the pitch for Newcastle has been as turgid and stagnant as the developments of any potential takeover in recent weeks.

Steve Bruce’s team seem to be on the proverbial beach (not Bournemouth beach for obvious safety reasons). Following the uncharacteristically dominant performance over the side from the beach capital of the UK and a 2-2 home draw against West Ham, the Magpies have slipped to three consecutive defeats and a limp draw against Brighton.

Despite the side’s season-long lack of creativity and goals persisting since the restart, another increasingly worrisome issue is the lack of balance and energy in the midfield.

The promising and dynamic Matty Longstaff is currently embroiled in a contract dispute with the club, appearing to be persona non grata, despite Bruce including him in recent match day squads.

With both Longstaffs out of the side and with midfield mainstay Isaac Hayden injured, the job of running the midfield in recent weeks has fallen to a combination of Shelvey, Bentaleb and the out of position Fabian Schar.

With Hayden having already made his desire to move on very clear and with both Longstaffs unable to agree new long-term deals, the Newcastle United midfield looks in dire need of strengthening.

It seems a long time since Shelvey pinged endless 70-yard passes to Daryl Janmaat on his debut. Or even since he bossed midfields in the Championship. A lack of mobility and targets to aim for limiting his impact on games.

Bentaleb appears to be a loan deal that is not worth making permanent, having never seemed to re-establish the form he once showed at Tottenham.

And any notion that Fabian Schar’s cascading charges from centre back and occasional examples of a Shelvey-esque passing range make him a potential midfield option, have been proved sorely mistaken. Schar has always looked vulnerable to players running at him and his lack of mobility and agility to turn and pivot are comparable to when goalkeepers go up front for the last five minutes of a game.

Newcastle are the bottom side in the league for possession (42.1% average), are 16th for pass completion and have only one midfielder (Isaac Hayden) in the top 45 Premier League players for tackles won per game. The stats support the eye test, with the Newcastle United midfield vulnerable to midfield runners and frequently unable to maintain possession or create chances from open play.

So, despite uncertainty over the future of several midfielders and no current ability to make plans for the transfer window, what should Newcastle look to do?

The emergence of the Longstaff brothers has seemingly skewed the perception of upward mobility for Newcastle youth players, with Emil Krafth and Fabian Schar being played out of position, rather than filling the position with a natural midfielder or defender from the academy.

Therefore, it seems that a solution will have to be found from outside the club. But with any takeover shrouded in mystery, the budget for the summer is currently unknown, limiting the scope of any incoming signings or new deals for existing midfielders. Fortunately, the options suggested here should cost no more than £25 – £30m each.

Having already disappointed at Premier league level for Fulham in 2018/2019, midfielder André-Frank Zambo Anguissa (on-loan at Villareal) may seem a strange choice. However, having promised much before his ill-fated move to Craven Cottage, an era that stunted the careers of many a good player, Anguissa has certainly delivered on that promise in Spain.

Anguissa is comparable to Belgian Mousa Dembélé (previously of Tottenham), his blend of intelligent midfield play and dominant physical presence certainly appealing to a Newcastle side that is often overrun and careless in possession. The Fulham man has strong tackle and interception numbers and can transition the ball forwards, both through passes into the final third and dribbling. It is his dribbling that makes him a stand out performer, his ability to keep the ball and commit opposition players something Newcastle have lacked since Gini Wijnaldum. At 24, Anguissa would be ideal as either a midfielder holder or progressive 8 for a Newcastle side lacking control and energy.

A perhaps more defensive option to the midfield conundrum would be RB Leipzig’s Konrad Laimer. Having played predominantly in central midfield, Laimer is versatile and can also play at full-back. With 4.1 tackles per game and an 81% pass completion rate, Laimer whilst perhaps not as progressive or dynamic on the ball compared to Anguissa, is certainly a solid midfielder and would undoubtedly be an upgrade on the current crop of midfielders.

Both players would cost in the region of £25-30 million and would add energy, pressing, quality and control on the ball for a Newcastle midfield that is neither creative nor defensively solid.

It must be said that any potential incomings would ideally play alongside some combination of Longstaff brothers. However, if the club, in whatever guise it appears next season, fails to agree a deal with the Longstaffs and loses Isaac Hayden, then serious reinforcements will be needed anyway to ensure that Newcastle’s relegation bound metrics don’t catch up with them.

Whilst the club may believe it has bigger fish to fry, a season of Schar and Shelvey in midfield could leave Newcastle submerged in a relegation battle. And in the wreckage of another disappointing season, salvagers would inevitably see that the midfield just wasn’t mobile enough to avoid the inevitable iceberg of relegation.

Newcastle are a contract dispute and a £30m midfielder away from the icy waters of Barnsley at home and trips away to Ewood Park.

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