With our lead at the top of the table only getting wider, it seems as though the good times are returning to Tyneside. There’s a feel-good factor in Rafa Benitez’s first full season in charge.
But could it get better with some judicious work in the transfer market in January? With us now 1/3 to win the title according to the Championship betting, many would make the rather pertinent argument of, ‘if it aint broke, don’t fix it.’
On the back of a ten-match unbeaten run – including nine wins – there doesn’t seem good reason to invest any further. The squad which Rafa built is beginning to gel well with replacements for the first choice players slotting in, if not quite seamlessly, then fitting well in the XI.
With eleven new signings last summer and nine departures, the revolving door nearly spun off its hinges. There’s a strong argument for letting it settle before inevitably strengthening the squad in the summer ahead of (hopefully) finding Premier League safety in 2017/18.
However, if Benitez is to continue his ‘Rafalution’, where might he be tempted to spend and who may be heading out of the door to make space in the squad?
A well-stocked position but one where the options could be better. Having begun the season well enough, Matz Sels blotted his copybook with Rafa and Karl Darlow took over. Change a winning team? Not likely; Rafa’s philosophy is quite clear: do a decent job and you keep your place. Sels had one blunder too many against Villa to be quickly forgiven.
Rob Elliot could steady the ship if needed but one of the three players is likely to leave this winter than anyone arriving. Elliot may feel that to regain his place in the Republic of Ireland squad, he has to move on.
Not only is the back four well-stocked, there’s also quality in there. Each position has two players – mostly more – to create competition for places. Both full backs have the quality, there are four good centre backs which begs the question whether Massadio Haidara will leave in the winter.
It’s the one area of the pitch where Rafa may be tempted to spend, particularly if he can offload Chieck Tiote. Whilst the defensive midfield role can be filled by Vurnon Anita or Isaac Hayden, he wants more competition for the pair if Tiote goes.
With Colback, Diame and Shelvey, there are plenty of options for the attacking midfield role but he may look more to the flanks for the squad. The outstanding Ritchie – a strong contender for the club’s Player of the Season award based on his performances so far – and Atsu are providing good service, ably supported by Gouffran and Aarons, injuries permitting.
The deal Benitez might be tempted to make is for Atsu with Chelsea, converting the season-long loan into a permanent move.
The strikers is an interesting area. Golden boot contender Dwight Gayle is proving to be an outstanding buy with eleven goals in his twelve Championship appearances, his best since moving to the professional game in 2012.
Considering their use as substitutes, Ayoze Perez and Aleksandar Mitrovic have chipped in with six and five goals respectively. However, the Serb is a player who, despite this record, is one I wouldn’t be sad to see depart. Whilst I wouldn’t force him out, if he wanted to leave, I wouldn’t stop him either.
In January though, it’s tough to find a replacement so holding onto him might well be the best option.