If you had have asked Newcastle United supporters at the start of the 2017/18 season who was going to be their most important player by the end of their first campaign back in the Premier League following a one-year absence, not many would have said Ayoze Perez.
The Spaniard had scored nine goals and provided a further seven assists in 36 Championship appearances to help the Tyneside outfit make an immediate return to the top flight under Rafa Benitez, but you got the feeling that the St James’ Park faithful still weren’t convinced about whether the 24-year-old should be a regular starter.
That perhaps stemmed from the fact that they feel Perez didn’t do enough when they were in the Premier League previously – 13 goals and two assists in 70 outings.
Benitez is clearly a huge fan of his fellow countryman however, and he started him in the No.10 role on the first day of the campaign for the visit of Tottenham Hotspur, which ended in a 2-0 defeat.
The 24-year-old picked up his first assist of the season on his third league appearance in the 3-0 success against West Ham United at St James’ Park, while his opening goal didn’t come until his eighth outing when he netted in the 2-2 draw against Southampton at St Mary’s in October.
Even at that early stage, Magpies fans on Twitter were frustrated with Perez and didn’t feel he was contributing enough, and that was even more apparent when he went from that October day on the south coast until New Year’s Day without picking up a single goal or assist.
It was clear by this stage that Newcastle were probably going to be fine from a defensive point of view in their bid to avoid dropping straight back into the Championship, but that their lack of goals could cost them.
The likes of Dwight Gayle and Joselu weren’t doing enough up top, while Matt Ritchie, Christian Atsu and Jacob Murphy weren’t getting on the score-sheet from wide areas like they may have been expected to.
Perez helped his team pick up a crucial three points against Stoke City at the Britannia Stadium on January 1 with the only goal in a 1-0 win, while he produced key assists in the draws against Crystal Palace and Bournemouth in February.
The 24-year-old’s key part of the campaign came at the end of March and into April – the business end of the season – however, when he scored the winner in the 1-0 victory against fellow strugglers Huddersfield Town, before he scored one and assisted the other in the 2-1 success away at Leicester City.
That result meant that a triumph against Arsenal at St James’ Park would take them past the magic 40-point mark and preserve their Premier League status for at least another year, and that is exactly what they did as the Spaniard scored the opener in a 2-1 win.
Perez had hit form at just the right time, and three more goals arrived before the climax of the campaign – including two on the final day against Chelsea.
Had it not been for the 24-year-old – who produced when it mattered most and was pivotal in earning his team 15 points (draws against Southampton, Palace and Bournemouth and wins against Stoke, Huddersfield, Leicester and Arsenal) prior to them surpassing 40 points – Newcastle would likely be on their way back to the Championship now.
Not only did he prove to be the Tyneside outfit’s best and most important attacker, he was their most important player in general, too.
Should the attacking midfielder – who at his age still has plenty of time to improve – take his run of six goals in eight matches into the 2018/19 campaign and continue to replicate it, he will quickly become a target for the top six clubs in the Premier League who are always looking for naturally gifted and clever forward players.
Perez may not have been admired by Toon supporters on occasions, but that changed in recent months and he has the technique and quality to play at the very highest level – as long as he adds some consistency to his game.
If he does that in August and beyond, the 24-year-old may not be a Newcastle player any longer when the 2019 January transfer window closes.