Newcastle United have taken only one point from their opening four Premier League matches, but that is partly due to the fixtures they have had. The Magpies have already played Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City. In each game, they were resilient and lost by only one goal. However, there are problems that need to be addressed if they are to come out on top against teams outside of the top six.
The main one being keeping Jonjo Shelvey fit. The midfielder has missed the last three matches in all competitions due to a thigh injury. Ki Sung-Yueng has been the player to come into the midfield as a creative replacement, but the South Korean international hasn’t had the same impact. He is tidy and reliable in possession, as highlighted by his pass success rate of 76.1% in a team that averages 64.6%. However, he hasn’t been able to deliver the dangerous passes that his injured team-mate produces regularly.
During the first two games of the season, Shelvey made seven key passes and was a constant thorn in the sides of both Tottenham and Cardiff. Meanwhile, his direct replacement, Ki, has made only one in his two matches in the starting eleven. The contrast is a stark one and it underlines the problems in transition that have faced Newcastle in their last two matches.
It is worth noting that Ki’s two appearances in the team were against both Chelsea and Manchester City. Newcastle only managed roughly 20% possession across the two games. It can be argued that the recent signing from Swansea didn’t have the opportunity to shine on the ball.
Others will argue that Shelvey’s absence from the team was a contributing factor to the style of play implemented by Benitez. The Englishman started the game against Tottenham and the Magpies were a lot more positive in their approach. They had 40.4% of the possession and attempted as many shots (15) as their more illustrious opposition.
Benitez would likely have delivered a defensive game-plan against both Chelsea and Manchester City if Shelvey was available. That said, the passing range that is possessed by the former England international would have provided another dimension to Newcastle’s game. He can quickly release the likes of Kenedy, Jacob Murphy and DeAndre Yedlin with his vision. The Magpies certainly would have carried more of a threat on the counter attack, rather than relying on the hold-up play of Salomon Rondon to move them up the pitch.
In addition to increasing Newcastle’s threat on the counter-attack, Shelvey’s long passing often moves the team up the pitch, even if he doesn’t find another player in black and white. This provides both respite for the defence and an opportunity for the attacking players to get onto the ball in more advanced positions.
This was lacking against Manchester City, as the visitors only attempted three shots on goal. One of these found the back of the net, but they couldn’t realistically hope to gain anything from the game offering this little.
There is nothing wrong with Benitez’s tactical set-up. He has been criticised for being overly defensive, but it isn’t easy to get a team well organised with high concentration levels at the back. The Spaniard has done this at Newcastle. There is no doubting their reliability when it comes to keeping goals out.
Few teams will go to the Etihad Stadium and concede two or fewer. Newcastle managed that on Saturday. They weren’t broken down with ease and it required two excellent strikes to beat Martin Dubravka. The first from Raheem Sterling and the second from an audacious long shot from Kyle Walker.
The problem for Benitez has been marrying a strong defence with a threatening attack on a low budget. Last season’s 10th place finish was impressive, but he wasn’t given the opportunity to bring in the attacking flair that he desperately needed. Therefore, another year of being pragmatic is needed if Newcastle are to have a successful season.
Over the last 12 months, there has been a lot of praise for Jamaal Lascelles and his role in Newcastle’s success. However, based on recent matches, it has become evident that Shelvey is the player most important to the club’s success. He can’t be replaced by any other player within the squad and the team are less effective when he isn’t on the pitch.
It isn’t only against the top-six that Shelvey has a big role to play. Against the teams that Newcastle should be looking to get points from, the midfielder serves as the main creative hub. He also has the license to get further forward to influence the game. Without him, the Magpies will be reliant on set-pieces and moments of magic to score Premier League goals.
The international break comes at a good time for Newcastle and Benitez. They have time to look back at their underwhelming start to the season and work on the problems that have arisen. One of their main priorities will be to get Shelvey back to full fitness, as they are a much better team with the midfielder than without.