Newcastle United edged closer to Premier League safety with a vital win over fellow strugglers Huddersfield Town. The rest of the results at the bottom of the table went for the Magpies and the gap to the relegation zone has increased to seven points.
Although Rafa Benitez will know the job isn’t done yet, his team took a huge step over the weekend and will know that a couple more positive results will see them over the line.
Towards the end of 2017, it looked perilous for Newcastle. They went on a run of form that saw them take only one point from a possible 27 available. It would have been easy for supporters to panic, but they kept the faith in Benitez and they were right to.
Benitez kept talking about having a young squad and how they had to learn quickly if they were to compete in the Premier League. The message has got through to the players and they are now a difficult team to beat.
Their resurgence has been helped most by the form of Jonjo Shelvey and Mohamed Diame in the middle of the park. It was an unlikely partnership, with both players being seen as lazy, but the Magpies manager has managed to get both playing to a high standard.
It is the perfect blend of power, technique, hard work and experience. Diame plays the unselfish role in front of the back four and is there to provide a shield to the back four. This allows Shelvey to play further up the field and he is more effective in the advanced role as he can create more opportunities for the attackers.
They both shone during the win over Huddersfield and dominated the midfield area against Aaron Mooy and Jonathan Hogg. Diame completed six ball recoveries and won four aerial duels in what was a dominant display.
In possession, he picks simple passes and ensures that the team keep possession. His pass completion of 88% shows that he excelled in that role and provided the platform for Shelvey to shine.
The 26-year-old midfielder was the undoubted star of the show as he ran the game and proved that he was a cut above any other player on the pitch. Shelvey has an incredible passing range and it was on full show during Saturday’s match.
He linked up with Dwight Gayle on numerous occasions and regularly picked out the forward’s runs in behind the back four. Other similar passes saw him get Matt Ritchie and Islam Slimani through in space, but Newcastle were not clinical in making the most of his creativity on the day.
In total, he made five key passes, which was more than any other player on the pitch. His pass completion of 77% is also impressive considering the risky passes he was trying to play. Shelvey also offered a threat himself, as he attempted four shots on goal and came close to opening the scoring in the first-half.
The calls for an England World Cup place will only get louder if he continues to dictate matches like this.
There is still work for Newcastle to do, but their midfield partnership has been an undoubted success and underlines the quality of Benitez. Few supporters would have picked these two to play together, but the manager had faith and has got the best out of both players.
Their combined Premier League experience has helped a young team progress, while their physicality in the middle of the park can make them a daunting prospect for opposition teams. Few midfielders will want to go up against the duo in their current form.