Steve Bruce should unleash Newcastle attacker Ryan Fraser on Manchester United this Sunday after seeing Dwight Gayle struggle to occupy the right-wing role at Chelsea.
The Toon boss had to unlock a new plan at Stamford Bridge after losing top-scorer Callum Wilson for the best part of two months with a hamstring injury, but failed to find the answer in Gayle occupying a wider role.
Gayle was not terrible in south-west London, just uncomfortable being tasked with making the runs out to the wing before cutting back in that Wilson excels at, with the former Crystal Palace man much more of an out-and-out centre-forward.
The Magpies sorely missed Wilson’s ability to stretch defences by drawing players over to the flanks and creating space in the centre for the likes of Miguel Almiron to exploit, and would do well to look toward Fraser for that threat at Old Trafford.
Gayle has the speed to make the runs through the centre and the knowhow to be in the right place at the right time to meet the passes over the shoulder of the last man but proved at Chelsea that he cannot be Bruce’s reimagination of Wilson.
A lack of service at the Bridge meant Gayle recorded just 16 touches before being taken off 64 minutes into his first start of the season in any competition, the least by any Newcastle player, while Isaac Hayden (39), Almiron (35), Allan Saint-Maximin (33), Jonjo Shelvey (33) and Joe Willock (32), were never left wanting by that stage, per WhoScored.
Compare that to Wilson’s 57 touches when he scored twice against Everton last month, and in a match were United had 39.1% of the possession to the 34.4% at Chelsea, it is as clear as day how much they lost out by having Gayle on the pitch instead.
Bruce should be able to expect more joy with Gayle on the pitch if the £7m-rated striker can do what he’s best at, rather than trying to plug round holes with square objects.
And that has to be where Fraser steps in, with Bruce recently claiming that he expects the free-agent summer signing to join Saint-Maximin in adding extra firepower to his attack.
“The reason why we’ve took them at the top end is we know what a difference Allan can make to us with that creativity,” Bruce said last month. “And certainly Ryan, when he’s well, when he’s fit, he’s proved that he’s capable too.
“Let’s hope they both stay well because if they do, then I’m quietly convinced that they’ll provide enough ammunition that we need to score, which is always the most difficult thing in the Premier League.”
Fraser is yet to score in the top-flight since moving to St. James’ Park, but appears to have overcome his fitness issues with appearances in five of United’s last six games following a groin injury on the back of a hamstring issue.
He started two of those outings and proved vastly influential in defeat to Crystal Palace, yet the 26-year-old has still only opened six Premier League games all season.
Fraser, dubbed a “little pocket dynamo” by Charlie Nicholas, created a game-high seven goalscoring opportunities against the Eagles as he accounted for almost half of Newcastle’s 15 key balls, more than twice as many as he has offered in any of his other top-flight appearances in black and white to date, per WhoScored.
The Scotland international also delivered nine accurate crosses at home to the Selhurst Park outfit, three times his previous single-game best achieved against Everton and Leeds, to further highlight how he can offer the width against Manchester United that Gayle lacked at Chelsea.
As also outlined by Hampden chief Steve Clarke in October, Fraser can provide “that little bit of spark” and that’s what Bruce needs to call upon at Old Trafford on Sunday.
If Bruce does not start the £13m-rated Fraser on the right-wing at Old Trafford, he will surely live to regret the decision – especially if Gayle is to be the one favoured out wide again.