Newcastle are flying high and incredibly sit seventh in the Premier League, after already collecting 14 points from our first 9 games.
A lot of credit has to go to the excellent tactical nous of Rafa Benitez and the outstanding work rate of this crop of honest players. Newcastle are performing well above expectations and an element of this has been the ability of Rafa to tweak the side for the game in front of us; Ciaran Clark being the latest to be dropped from the team in place of Florian Lejeune.
What other changes may Bentiez consider over the coming weeks, or even Burnley away on Monday night?
The Spaniard has scored a few goals and initially, surprised a few following his low key arrival from Stoke City for £5m. However, goals and performances levels have tapered off since what we thought was a big moment for him to score against Liverpool. Several good opportunities were squandered against his former side and he looked lacklustre against both Southampton and Palace.
That being said, he has a good work ethic and puts himself about up top. Whereas, when Gayle comes on, he doesn’t seem to be able to make the ball stick or put in the same sort of shift. In our current system we need someone to hold up the play which would leave Mitrovic as the only real alternative. He has work to do to convince Benitez, but may earn a recall to the starting 11 if the Spaniard can’t get going up top.
Perez was ineffective against Palace and has not been threatening enough this season. He has a good work ethic and this, along with ‘creating space for others’ are the reasons Benitez mentions for keeping him in the side. His goal at St. Mary’s would have been a welcome relief to get up and running this season and I hoped it would give him confidence for Crystal Palace, however he was as bad as I’ve seen him this season. With his time on Tyneside now entering his fourth season, Perez has just not kicked on after his early promise.
The number 10 role is a key priority for us in January, takeover or not. Perez needs to improve to justify his longer term inclusion. Mo Diame came on for the last 25 minutes in place of Ayoze last Saturday and did well, however it remains to be seen if Benitez will opt to start the ageing Senegalese midfielder from the start anytime soon.
In context, after being hit and miss in a lower league last year, Atsu has had a positive start to the season. The nippy Ghanaian was excellent in some of our opening games but his form has dipped a little, with him having the tendency to drift out of games more than Matt Ritchie on the other flank. It is one of the areas of the squad where we have a few options to come in, so he will need to get back to his early season form to keep his place in the team.
Jacob Murphy has looked poor when called upon this season as he finds his feet, but he is a young player with plenty of promise who arrived as our most expensive summer signing, so you would imagine he will get a proper run at some point this season. Rolando Aarons would also be an exciting alternative, however he still has work to do before he’ll be considered at first team level?
If Rafa persists with Perez, or doesn’t feel Shelvey can play in the number 10 role, then both Hayden and Jonjo are surely at risk or being usurped in the starting XI by Mikel Merino.
Hayden has improved lately and of course scored a crucial goal in our draw down at Southampton. You get the feeling Benitez likes him in the side as the defensive screen; after all, organisation and being solid has been the cornerstone of our success this season.
After returning from his ban, Shelvey has shown glimpses of his undoubted talent. The through ball for our goal against Liverpool was an example of the penetration his passing offers us going forward. He has followed that up though with a sloppy display against Palace last weekend, with a few too many wayward passes silly fouls given away. He needs to stay disciplined but if playing well, it is likely Hayden is under threat from Merino, who has to start.
Burnley are a gritty team, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see Rafa start the more combative Hayden and Merino next Monday, seeing Jonjo miss out?
Let us know your thoughts as ever. Is there anyone else in the team whose place could be under threat in the coming weeks?
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About Simon Riddlesden
Lifelong Newcastle United fan and East Stand season ticket holder. Observations from a supporter who has followed NUFC during Champions League participation and through relegation, taking me from Milan to Scunthorpe.