Newcastle United were the big winners on Saturday as they beat relegation rivals Southampton at home with relative comfort. The rest of the results also went their way and they climbed to 13th with eight matches to play.
Rafa Benitez spoke about 40 points being enough to stay up and his team are now only eight points away from that landmark. Their job isn’t done yet, but they took a huge step towards survival on Saturday.
The focus will be on Mauricio Pellegrino after the game, as Southampton slipped to another poor result. The Saints have won only once in their last 17 Premier League matches.
That is an awful record and one that makes them a frontrunner to suffer relegation this season. However, as average as the visitors were, Newcastle did well to put them under pressure and punish the mistakes that they made.
To a man, Newcastle were excellent and it was a team performance that symbolised what Rafa Benitez’s managerial approach is. They controlled the game and created the better chances, without dominating possession. Two players that stood out were Jamaal Lascelles and Jonjo Shelvey.
The two Englishmen have emerged as key players under Benitez and they stepped up with great performances in a huge game. They both offer leadership to the team and that is important as Newcastle have a young squad with many players being inexperienced at the highest level. That has cost the team this season as they have failed to manage matches to a positive conclusion.
Lascelles has become known as one of the best young English defenders and his performance today enhanced his World Cup claims. There has been talk that the Newcastle captain is an outside bet to make the squad that travels to Russia, but there remain a number of centre-backs ahead of him in the pecking order.
Although he has been discussed as an option, the 24-year-old is focused on keeping Newcastle in the Premier League and Saturday’s performance reflected that. He was dominant in the air as he won nine aerial duels. Lascelles’ positioning was flawless, as he completed two ball recoveries and made 12 clearances.
The Magpies have been good defensively this season as would be expected from a team managed by Benitez. They have conceded the joint-fewest of any team in the bottom half and Lascelles has been a major reason for that. Their record without him in the team shows his importance and he played a crucial role in the clean sheet against Southampton.
It would be ambitious to suggest that Lascelles is now a serious contender to be picked for the World Cup. He hasn’t been capped by the senior squad and Southgate is likely to keep faith in those with experience at international level. However, the Newcastle captain will have a rapport with the national manager after being coached by him at Under-21 level.
Also, he is a natural leader and England don’t have many of those. If he can continue to perform for Newcastle and help the club to Premier League safety, he will move into contention and an injury or two could see him make the squad. Regardless of whether he makes the squad this summer or not, Lascelles has a future at international level. It becomes more evident with every passing week.
In his role as captain, Lascelles is very important for Newcastle, but Jonjo Shelvey has an equally crucial role to play. The midfielder passed a late fitness test to start against Southampton and delivered a display of the highest quality to earn the three points. Without the 26-year-old, the Magpies lack creativity and dynamism which makes them predictable to play against.
It didn’t take long for Shelvey to make an impact on the game, as he delivered an excellent ball over the top of the defence to release Kenedy. The Brazilian still had a lot to do, as he controlled the ball and guided it past Alex McCarthy, but the delivery into him gave him the opportunity to score.
Benitez would have made it clear that his team needed to start well and heap the pressure onto Southampton. That move within the first two minutes set the tone for the game and it was the positive thinking from the midfielder that was responsible for it.
His pass success rate of 46% suggests his distribution wasn’t great, but that stat doesn’t tell the whole story. Shelvey was playing risky forward passes at every opportunity and although lots didn’t come off, they put Southampton on the back foot and caused problems for the defenders. They didn’t enjoy going back towards their own box to defend and Newcastle were often first to the loose balls.
In the second-half, Shelvey got his second assist of the game and it showed great decision making from the midfielder. He was in acres of space on the edge of the area and took his time to make the right decision. The 26-year-old eventually squared it to Matt Ritchie who struck it into the bottom corner. A lot of midfielders would have shot themselves, but the Newcastle number eight saw his team-mate in a better position and unselfishly passed to him.
Under Benitez, Shelvey has become a lot better at defending and contributing to the overall effort of the team. He completed four ball recoveries on Saturday and showed aggression in his closing down. There has never been any doubting his creativity, but the added work rate has made him a lot more effective in the middle of the park.
Shelvey remains a complicated character and he has been sent off twice this season, which shows the problems that he can cause his own team. However, he has become more consistent and he is now impacting games more regularly.
He isn’t afraid to play risky passes and has a lot of ability to pull them off. England don’t have a lot of great central midfield options and although it would be a huge call to take him to Russia, the Newcastle midfielder could have something to offer.
Neither player is likely to make the squad, but Gareth Southgate should make a visit to the North East and watch both of them. They each have unique qualities that few other players in the country have. Lascelles is a born leader, while Shelvey has an excellent passing range and offers creativity from deep.
Both are hitting form at the right time and could be good outside bets to gate-crash the squad.