Rafa Benitez identified the signings of Matt Ritchie and Dwight Gayle as key components to winning automatic promotion at the first attempt last season. Both completed outstanding seasons and further reinforced their quality, especially at Championship level. Jonjo Shelvey was also a key player for Newcastle last year and these three players provided the spine that helped us win the title.
Question marks remain though over their Premier League pedigree. How have they performed in the top flight previously and what can we expect next from them next year?
Ritchie was arguably our player of the season last year. The £12m winger ended the season with 12 Championship goals and 7 assists, often scoring key goals when we needed them. A high work rate and being willing to responsibly on the pitch has endeared him to fans. This mirrored his previous season in the Championship, where his goal scoring exploits propelled Bournemouth into the Premiership for the first time a few seasons ago.
This led to Ritchie’s one and only season in the top flight in the 15/16 season. Naturally with the step up in quality, his stats were not quite as impressive but 4 goals and 6 assists was still a decent return for a winger in a newly promoted side. Bournemouth fans were divided over his departure and looking at the really poor form of his replacement, Jordan Ibe, I’m pretty sure they would welcome him back.
Ritchie remains one of our best players and the key is purchasing better players to help him out; often he was double marked last year. A greater threat from the other wing will only help him next year, probably one of the key reasons Rafa is so keen on a return for Andros Townsend.
Gayle is the current holder of the iconic number 9 shirt and is coming back off a lethal season of 23 goals in just 26 appearances. Injuries held up the end of his season and he will be looking to prove his belongs at the highest level. United are linked with strikers on a daily basis and with Rafa favouring one up front, it will be interesting to see if he remains undoubted first choice or he is deployed as an impact sub.
It was this role he was predominantly used at Crystal palace when he plied his trade in the Premiership. 15 goals came at Palace from 60 odd appearances, though over half were from the bench. Gayle showed he is a good finisher and plays well on the shoulder but needs to underline he belongs in the Premiership with some early goals next year.
Shelvey is perhaps the most experienced of the three in terms of top flight football. This was his first season outside the Premiership and his undoubted ability shone in the Championship. He can dictate a game and his range of passing is something that transforms our attacking options. Shelvey forced his way in the England team at one point following early promise at Liverpool and some excellent displays for Swansea.
Attitude and consistency however remains his Achilles heel. Now 25, his temperament still leaves a lot to be desired. High tackles and a habit of red cards or bans don’t help his cause. He was also accused on ‘downing tools’ at Swansea before competing his move up north to NUFC. Rafa is the best person to help him reach his potential and get back to previous excellent Premiership form.
All three players will be eager to deliver next season. Shelvey has a chance to get back into the England reckoning, especially with a real lack of talent in that area currently. Ritchie and Gayle are hungry to improve and will be better from previous experience of Premiership football. The key next season is to buy enough quality to not rely on these three players to continually bail us out; so when they have off days, which they will, others can step up.