What a funny old start to the season for Newcastle United.
The opening day win at West Ham was brilliant and last night’s rout at Morecambe saw our fringe men step up, yet in between that we’ve rode our luck against a Blackburn side that generally outplayed us and been outgunned all over the pitch by a Brighton side who put three past us at St James’ Park.
With the mixture of results in mind, it had me wondering just what Steve Bruce believes to be his strongest starting 11 when everyone’s fit – especially when he has a few more positive selection dilemmas following last night’s 0-7 win on the West Coast!
For me, this is quite possibly our best XI:
(4-2-3-1): Dubravka – Manquillo, Lascelles, Fernandez, Lewis – Hayden, Shelvey – Saint-Maximin, Almiron, Fraser – Wilson.
Here’s a closer look at each position:
- GK: Dubravka – Our player of the season for 2019/20. He may make the odd mistake, but the ice cool Slovakian wins us MUCH more.
- RB: Manquillo – From Sunderland flop to one of our most reliable players. He needs better competition, but he rarely puts a foot wrong.
- CB: Lascelles – He has his critics and has regressed slightly under Bruce, but we still look less stable defensively when the commanding centre-back is missing, for me. A leader, organiser and impressive athlete who doesn’t lose many or his battles in the air or on the ground.
- CB: Fernandez – The Argentine hasn’t had many bad games since signing from Swansea two years ago. A warrior who is another unsung hero of ours. That said, Ciaran Clark’s return will keep him on his toes, with the Irishman putting in two faultless displays in the cup.
- LB: Lewis – Our new £15m man looked the part at West Ham last weekend. Carries the ball well, athletic and seems composed and capable at both ends. Struggled vs Birhgton but I back him to do well.
- CM: Hayden – One of few genuine tacklers in the team. A brilliant engine too which makes up for Shelvey’s lack of mobility.
- CM: Shelvey – Our top scorer last season, but Bruce will be hoping he can come alive as a creator this season and benefit from Wilson’s movement and the array of exciting attackers he will could look to pick out.
- RM: Saint-Maximin – It’s tough to say which side he’ll play down, but I suspect he’ll be moved to the right given Fraser has always played down the left. After all, ASM has the pace, trickery and explosiveness to do damage anywhere in the opposition half!
- CAM: Almiron – The ever-improving Paraguayan brings energy, pace and invention. He’s got THREE assists and a goal already this season and was our top scorer in all competitions last season.
- LM: Fraser – He’ll take some time to get fully match fit after barely playing since March, but there’s little doubt that he starts once he’s ready. Bruce will be hoping he rekindles that electric partnership he had with Wilson in 2018/19.
- ST: Wilson – Our new main man up top and a proven striker at this level. The way I see it, the only way he doesn’t start up top is if he’s injured!
With a few big names missing, here’s a few additional thoughts:
Jeff Hendrick could soon prove to be worthy of a place in that side, but with Hayden and Shelvey a proven partnership and Fraser, Almiron and ASM surely the trio who plays behind the striker when everyone’s fit, it’ll be interesting to see if the Irishman can cement a regular place in Steve Bruce’s side. If Shelvey doesn’t sort out his form – which saw him be a passenger in that 0-3 defeat to Brighton – then he could and should come into the side in centre midfield.
Matt Ritchie is another who used to be one of the first names on the teamsheet, but links with a return down south and a change of formation has me wondering where he fits. For me, he doesn’t get in ahead of a fully fit and firing Fraser, Almiron or ASM in that attacking trio, yet also doesn’t fit at wing-back now we’ve moved from a five-man defence to a four.
As our £40m man, Steve Bruce is under pressure to find a space in his side for Joelinton. He’s clearly not a lone striker who should be labelled our no.9 and top talisman, but he could yet thrive in a withdrawn role just off Callum Wilson – something that Josh King did so well during their time together at Bournemouth. He bagged twice up top at Morecambe, but he had options ahead of him and often looked at his best when dropping deep. If he can keep playing like that, he’ll soon find a way into Bruce’s side – either alongside Wilson or in a role just off the front.
Jacob Murphy has also done himself no harm, with him backing up some promising moments in pre-season with a stunning display at Morecambe. Whether it be League Two opposition or not, he looked a million dollars and a new player, with him beating men at will and producing consistent final product with his decision making, pinpoint crossing and impressive finish. He’ll do well to get in ahead of Fraser, Almiron or ASM, but he’ll be getting a look in before long if he keeps playing like that!
Then there’s Ciaran Clark. This would’ve been an unpopular opinion at one time, but I genuinely can’t remember the last time he had a bad game, with him not putting a foot wrong in his first two games back for seven months against Blackburn and Morecambe. Fabian Schar may seem like the more luxurious option who is undoubtedly our most talented centre-back on his day, but his form after lockdown suggested he was A) pretty unmotivated and B) not suited to a four-man defence.
Paul Dummett is another reliable player who could benefit from our return to a back 4, however he’ll do well to win back that left-back slot if Jamal Lewis can get back to the form that saw him perform well at both ends at West Ham.
When everyone’s fit, what do you believe our best XI to be?