No love for Newcastle United’s Ayoze Perez against Liverpool

Usual Newcastle United stalwart Ayoze Perez managed only 6 minutes at Anfield on Saturday, but was this simply a tactical switch or a sign of more permanent changes from Rafa Benitez?

Newcastle United’s lineup has seen many changes over the course of the Premier League season, many forced by injury, but others a result of poor individual performances.

However, if Toon fans were asked to name the strongest 11 available to Benitez, 24 year old Spanish forward Ayoze Perez would be one of the first on the list. Our staff’s lineup prediction for the Liverpool game, in fact, included Perez in three of the four starting 11’s, with only Durim accurately predicting Perez’s absence in favour of Jacob Murphy.

Sometimes a polarising figure amongst Toon circles, Perez has been a first-team regular for all three of his previous seasons in a Newcastle United shirt – making over 30 appearances every campaign. Typified by his tireless defensive contribution, it is no surprise that the Spaniard has notched over 130 appearances for the Toon at only 24 years old. But, a return of only 2 goals and 3 assists so far this season has been a cause of concern.

Benitez elected to replace Perez with Jacob Murphy for the Liverpool game, which was presumably to add even more pace to a side that already contained Christian Atsu and Kenedy. Whilst the plan did not work and Newcastle lost 2-0, it wasn’t an embarrassing loss and in many ways, encouragement can be taken from limiting such an explosive side to only 2 goals.

With Southampton up next at St. James Park on Saturday, Benitez will most likely revert to his usual tactics and his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation. As an attacking midfielder, Perez’s role is to link the midfield to the lone striker and help create chances, but Benitez often favours a defensive approach and limits the freedom of his forward players.

Games against Southampton and Huddersfield at home this month will require a far more positive approach, as Dwight Gayle was a lonesome figure up front at Anfield. Jacob Murphy did little to impress as an attacking midfielder, and although Perez missed a glorious chance against Bournemouth recently, he did have an assist which notched his tally up to 2 in the month of February.

Benitez has experimented unsuccessfully with a 4-4-2 formation this season, and Perez traditionally is more of a midfielder than a striker, but striker Joselu is now a marginal figure in the squad. There could now be room to adopt a more attacking approach with both Ayoze and Gayle filling the striker roles, and Toon fans will be looking for their side to improve on a disappointing record of only 27 goals in 29 Premier League games.

Injuries are still troubling the Toon, as the conditions of Jonjo Shelvey and loanee Islam Slimani are still unclear. Perez may be inconsistent and susceptible to giving the ball away too cheaply, but he also has more assists than anyone in the squad apart from Matt Ritchie, and furthermore has plenty of experience at Premier League level unlike his counterparts such as Murphy or Atsu.

Until the squad can be bolstered for what is hopefully another year in the Premier League next season, Benitez should be reluctant to play players out of position and tactically alter his side too drastically. If the Liverpool game was an experiment with 3 wingers, it failed as the Toon’s wingers were ineffective all afternoon.

Ayoze Perez may not always please fans with his performances, but his absence was evident in the center of the pitch on Saturday. Mikel Merino and Mo Diame struggled to fill this area against Liverpool, but if Perez gets the start against Southampton, expect to see a far more balanced and attacking display from the Toon. If there were other players available to Rafa Benitez, omitting Ayoze from the starting 11 would make far more sense. Unfortunately, if Benitez insists on continuing with his 4-2-3-1 formation, there is little room for flexibility in attacking midfield.

A return for Islam Slimani could offer cause to change tactics, as his physical presence and aerial ability gives the opportunity to play a more direct style – but for now, Ayoze Perez is the only true attacking midfielder in the squad, and will have to play an important role in securing another Premier League season for Toon fans to enjoy.

Newcastle United currently sit 2 points above the relegation zone, and 1 point ahead of their opponent on Saturday, Southampton.