It’s been a wonderful week for Newcastle United, who managed to take a five-point lead at the top of the Sky Bet Championship despite traveling to closest challengers Brighton and Hove Albion and Huddersfield Town across the space of just five days.
Though the nature of a season in the second tier would suggest little is yet guaranteed in their quest to make it back into the Premier League, the fact they managed to grind out wins against some pretty tough opposition is hugely promising. While Rafa Benitez has urged the Toon Army to take things one game at a time, surely those behind the scenes should be planning for life back in the top tier.
As good as things are going right now, there are some problems within the side that need to be addressed if Benitez is going to be able to remain competitive amongst the English elite. Investment is expected up and down the squad and one of the major departments needing reinforcements is the creative one. Outside of Jonjo Shelvey, Newcastle often struggle to serve up too many chances and the fact he missed five games as a result of an FA ban is partly to blame for their run of poor form across the New Year period.
In fact, whenever Shelvey is effectively man-marked out of the game, Newcastle really do struggle. Lowly Rotherham managed to do exactly that during a tense opening 45 minutes at St. James’ Park and Daryl Murphy’s opener that day came against the run of play. While the fact Benitez’s side eventually romped to a 4-0 win will obviously paper over that crack, surely a Premier League side would have punished them.
So, it’s clear a more creative spark needs to introduced on Tyneside. Ayoze Perez may fare better in the top tier than the physical Championship, though the Spaniard’s inconsistent form for much of the past year means he cannot be relied upon. Still, perhaps Newcastle’s answer to this problem is already in their grasp.
Comments from on-loan forward Siem De Jong, currently spending the campaign with PSV Eindhoven claiming he could make a return to the North East next season suggests Benitez is already considering using the Dutchman next season. Though the former Ajax skipper suffered with injuries during his initial spell in black and white, he has seemed to put them behind him of late, representing an interesting option for Newcastle.
In fact, in those comments made since his move to the Erevdisivie, the former Holland international has indicated he was match fit for most Steve McClaren’s latter reign in charge of the Magpies, a period when many fans would probably have viewed him as somewhat of a sicknote.
A hugely gifted technician, the impact of De Jong’s introduction in a horrifically tense Tyne-Wear derby back in April, Benitez’s first home game in charge, shouldn’t be forgotten. Brought on as the Toon were trailing in a six-pointer against their bitter rivals, he managed to operate as something of a quarterback, helping drive his teammates up the field at a time the Black Cats were threatening to extend their lead.
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As a result, Newcastle were able to claw a late leveller through Aleksandar Mitrovic and De Jong’s impact in controlling the tempo of a game that had threatened to all but seal the Toon’s fate shouldn’t be quickly forgotten. De Jong really can give his side something different in the Premier League, even if his impact in black and white comes almost three years after Alan Pardew initially signed him in 2014.
A Shelvey-De Jong axis might not work from the start, though the option to bring the latter on if Newcastle are to switch between a 4-2-3-1 and a 4-3-3 would help bring some much-needed fluidity and variety to an attack that has looked bereft of ideas for games at a time this season. Lining De Jong up on the right of a three, with the searingly quick DeAndre Yedlin overlapping, would also help Benitez find a more direct approach in the tougher games against the English elite.
Upon his arrival, Pardew beamed ‘he will give us intelligence in the final third and create goal-scoring situations, which we lacked towards the end of last season’, a statement equally as true now as it was back then. Perhaps Rafa Benitez can be the man to truly enjoy such intelligence next season, should the Dutchman return.