Newcastle United: Rafa Benitez faces a tactical dilemma in midfield

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 16: Jacob Murphy of Newcastle in action during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Newcastle United at Emirates Stadium on December 16, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 16: Jacob Murphy of Newcastle in action during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Newcastle United at Emirates Stadium on December 16, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images) /

Rafa Benitez has some tactical decisions to make regarding his midfielders as the season finale approaches.

One thing seems certain as Newcastle United enter the final stretch of the season and that is the fact that Jonjo Shelvey, Mohamed Diame, Christian Atsu and Kenedy have solidified their roles in midfield. The question this raises, however, is how will Rafa Benitez utilize Mikel Merino, Jacob Murphy, Matt Ritchie and Isaac Hayden?

With 11 matches remaining in the season, it is too late for Rafa Benitez to experiment with his lineup selections. All Benitez can do now is determine who to play in certain matchups and modify his substitution strategy for each match.

Of the four midfielders coming off the bench, Matt Ritchie is the most probable candidate for playing the most minutes and even finding his way into the starting eleven over Atsu. The resurgence of both Mohamed Diame and Jonjo Shelvey has made it more difficult for Merino and Hayden to break into the rotation.

Moreover, the impressive form of Kenedy on the wing has left Murphy on the outside looking in.

Utilizing Mikel Merino

It did not take long after his debut with Newcastle United for the Toon Army to express their admiration for the young central midfielder. Merino possesses the best ball control skills of any midfielder on the team sheet and he is an above average passer for his age.

The problem with Merino as of late has been his inconsistency in midfield. His up and down form playing alongside Diame has opened the door to Shelvey, an opportunity which has led to his revival as a starter in six of the last eight matches.

Going forward in the final third of the season, Benitez must use Merino as a substitute when Newcastle United are trailing in a match after 65 or 70 minutes. Diame and Shelvey have been impressive on offense even though they are known as defensive midfielders, but one of them must be replaced by Merino when the Magpies are trailing late in the second half.

Utilizing Isaac Hayden

Isaac Hayden has seen the least amount of playing time out of all the central midfielders in the second half of the season. When Hayden has been on the pitch he has played well as a defensive midfielder, and has created some scoring chances for himself and his team-mates.

It is actually quite difficult to find major flaws in Hayden’s skills and work ethic. The issue with Hayden is that there is a lot of competition for the central midfielder role.

Like Merino, Hayden is young and inexperienced, whereas Diame and Shelvey have played in the top flight with multiple teams. In addition, Hayden has not had a breakout game aside from his performance at Southampton to earn the status of a regular starter.

Hayden has undoubtedly earned Benitez’s respect, and rightfully so, but Benitez must only use Hayden as a substitute in the scenario where Newcastle United need to maintain their lead late in a match.

Hayden may have a thin frame, but the young midfielder has sufficient strength to hold possession in the middle third of the pitch and frustrate the opposition.

Utilizing Jacob Murphy

Jacob Murphy is the most interesting Newcastle midfielder to analyze for a few reasons. Firstly, the youngster has proven that he has the skill and pace to play in the Premier League. Secondly, the Toon Army acknowledge his potential and want to see him develop with more playing time. Thirdly, Benitez also knows that Murphy is a talented winger, but he does not know how to fit him into the rotation.

The competition in midfield carries over to the wings as well. At the moment, Kenedy and Christian Atsu are the regular starters down the flanks, but Ritchie and Murphy also have the talent to start matches.

Murphy has made some big plays for the Magpies this season with his game-winning assist against Stoke City and his composed chip-shot goal against Manchester City.

With Newcastle fighting for survival in a tight relegation battle, Benitez might be worried that Murphy cannot handle the pressure, but his performances say otherwise.

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Murphy should be the main substitute when he does not start from the opening whistle, but Benitez should strongly consider playing Murphy opposite of Kenedy, especially against bottom-half clubs. Overall, Murphy is the winger of the future for Newcastle United.