Missed opportunities in a disappointing home draw to Swansea masked a larger problem for Newcastle United.
When you watch Newcastle United play, one thing is glaringly obvious: they lack a true proven goalscorer at the Premier League level. Yet, as poor as the 349 minutes per goal that both Dwight Gayle and Joselu have achieved in the competition is, Rafa Benitez should be looking at the midfield to take the weight off his forwards’ shoulders in the second half of the season.
An ineffective strike force can be mitigated through a team-wide contribution, both in attack and defence. This is an area where the Toon have struggled mightily and must improve. As the famous adage goes, goals win games. Unfortunately, a brief look at Newcastle’s goalscoring charts proves a bleak picture for Magpies fans.
Beyond Gayle and Joselu, only four players have scored more than one goal in the Premier League so far. Ayoze Perez and Christian Atsu have hit home twice, alongside central defenders Ciaran Clark and Jamaal Lascelles, who are also sitting on two goals each this campaign.
Both Perez and Atsu were wasteful against Swansea City today. The former placed a tame shot directly at Swans keeper Fabianski in the first half off a wonderful aerial through ball from Matt Ritchie.
Atsu continues to be a lively player who possesses great pace, but little in technical ability or decision making. His wayward cross-field ball to Jonjo Shelvey put an end to a promising Toon counter-attack in the first half.
The Ghanian’s only other notable contribution was winning a free kick on the edge of the Swansea penalty area, from which Shelvey blazed a poor effort high and wide of Fabianski’s goal.
Crying out for quality
The Swansea game, like many others this season, was crying out for a moment of quality amongst the drab football on display.
Collective responsibility should be the name of the game for Rafa Benitez and his squad going forward. The midfield is largely made up of combative midfielders, who suit the structured, counter-attacking style that the Spanish manager wants to play.
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But, crucially, this leaves the Toon relying on the creative outlet of its wingers, who besides Matt Ritchie’s impressive total of five assists in the league (0 goals), have only amassed three assists between them (Atsu 2, Murphy 1).
Ritchie has been linked with a move away to Burnley in January, but Benitez would be foolish to sell the Scotsman, who is one of United’s best players.
A polarising figure in Toon circles, Ayoze Perez’s two league goals, and one assist is not enough to get Newcastle United comfortably clear of the relegation zone. The attacking midfielder is a tireless figure off the ball, but especially in home matches, the team needs someone with real technical craft who can control the tempo of the game. Too often, we see Newcastle sitting back and gifting the ball opposition whenever they try to play the ball through the centre of the pitch.
42% possession at home to bottom of the league Swansea is indicative of a midfield devoid of quality and the presence of mind to keep the ball. Newcastle’s midfield needs confidence in their own ability to break down the opposition, rather than resorting to the predictable slew of aerial balls to Joselu’s head, or simply giving it to a wide player and saying ‘job done’.
Jacob Murphy did not feature today, despite improved performances after looking out of his depth in the Premier League initially. Mohamed Diamé has not inspired the Toon faithful this season, but he is relied upon by Benitez to do a job for the team, closing down opposition players and making strong tackles. His strengths do not lie in going forward.
Young Mikel Merino, who arrived from Borussia Dortmund at the beginning of the season, has looked a tidy player for Newcastle, but once again offers far more in the defensive department than he does further up the pitch.
Unless January provides a positive shock in the transfer market, it may take a reconsidered tactical approach from Rafa Benitez to make the most out of his squad, particularly at home where the Toon have taken 1 point from their last 5 matches.
NUFC have been linked with Chelsea winger Kenedy again followed a failed pursuit in the summer, yet there are doubts whether he could really make a difference on Tyneside. Whatever the result of this January, Newcastle will need contributions from more than just the strikers. Benitez has put together a well-organized side, capable of keeping their shape and working well off the ball.
However, it is goals and assists that win games, not how many last-ditch tackles or goal-line clearances you can make over the course of 90 minutes.This is where the midfield must improve if Newcastle United are to press on with Premier League survival in the 2017-18 season.