When Ayoze Perez broke on the scene in 2014/15, he not only looked like a superb piece of business for little over £1m but a very talented player to boot. He’d try things others wouldn’t, could make something happen out of nothing and gave us the element of flair and trickery our team was so often lacking.
He was no world beater, but it was fair of us to believe we had quite a handy player on our hands in Perez.
Three years on and it feels like the Spaniard’s game has been progressively going backwards. At 24, youthfulness is no longer a plausible explanation, with club captain Jamaal Lascelles being a year younger and star midfielder Mikel Merino just 21.
In fairness to him, he did manage 12 goals and 7 assists in all competitions last season – a steady return, so it may sound harsh to be overly critical – but there were so many elements of his game that seemed to be lacking week in week out.
He drifted out of games, often struggled with his final ball (when he managed to actually get himself involved) and was all too easily dispossessed. I don’t want to use the phrase half hearted as he does work hard for the team, but there’s often a lack of intensity about his game – whether it be a weak shot or a him being muscled off the ball all too easily, I think that’s what bugs quite a few of us. He isn’t the quickest and lacks any real physicality, which doesn’t help his case, but this only emphasised the importance of him delivering technically and having influence on games? Two departments he was also lacking in last season.
Is all of the above a product of a lack of confidence or evidence of his limited ability? Either way, a lot of us were asking ‘what does Perez actually do?’ over the summer.
Seven games into our Premier League season and Perez has started each and every one of them. His attacking play and effectiveness as a creative number 10 remains highly questionable, but he has put in a shift for the team each week, with Matt Ritchie being the only NUFC players to have covered more ground than the Spaniard this season. This perhaps explains what Perez actually does in this NUFC team, but is it enough?
It’s a difficult one with Perez for me. He does offer Benitez the defensive discipline that so many ‘number 10’s’ may lack, but quite crucially, he also lacks the quality and cutting edge that so many number 10’s possess – with quality on the ball and influence on the game being two key traits of a modern day playmaker.
We don’t have the luxury of a Christian Eriksen, David Silva or Philipe Coutinho, but just take Brighton’s new man ‘in the hole’, Pascal Gross. He has covered more ground than almost every other Premier League midfielder this season yet has 2 goals and 2 assists – while Perez has just 1 assist to his name and has too often seen his final product let him down when in good areas.
His constant running and discipline to follow out Rafa’s game plan may helped us be hard to beat, meaning there is a case for Benitez to keep him in the side, but his lack of quality in big moments has also limited us offensively on quite a few occasions now.
I think quite a few fans also struggle to believe that he is actually all THAT good defensively. He covers ground and clearly follows Benitez’s specific tactical plan, but he’s still very lightweight and often lacks the pace and intensity to get to players quick enough to make a challenge.
A happy medium needed perhaps? His efforts are appreciated and are clearly affective from a defensive perspective, but I often wonder where the dynamic and skilful Ayoze Perez has gone to – something we loved him for when he broke onto the scene in the 2014/15 season.
I’ll continue to support him and won’t hound him out of Rafa’s team – it would be totally unfair to do that to a player who does put a shift in for our team – however I really do hope he can contribute a little more offensively. An Ayoze Perez who can work this hard AND regain some of the flair and unpredictability that we once loved him for would be a genuine asset to our team, but for now, I’m struggling.