Given how little investment owner Mike Ashley once again made in the Newcastle United squad, what and who they are under Rafael Benítez is already well-established, and how they approach the new Premier League season will come as little surprise.
There was plenty of evidence on show in their opening game of the season against Tottenham Hotspur as Newcastle switched to a five-man midfield, dropping Ayoze Pérez into a deeper role to try and combat Spurs’ passing fluidity while utilising width, Jonjo Shelvey’s long-passing and the physicality of Joselu.
Identities of the individuals may change slightly – loan arrival Salomón Rondón for Joselu will happen at some stage – but barring some tweaks here and there depending on the opposition, Benítez will always make the Toon hard to break down, competitive and menacing on the counter-attack.
Bouncing back after Spurs
DeAndre Yedlin’s knee injury threatened to cause a rethink, as the full-back’s drive and width is important to Benítez’s system, but thankfully the USA international should resume training soon and could even be in contention for Saturday’s trip to Cardiff City.
The game in south Wales presents an interesting challenge, not because Neil Warnock’s side pose as strong a threat as Tottenham, even on home soil for the first time this season, but in how the Newcastle coach chooses to approach the match.
Spurs was the perfect Benítez scenario, especially against the backdrop of so much frustration with Ashley’s handling of the club; Newcastle were the underdogs and the Spaniard’s instructions to absorb pressure and be efficient in transition fitted in with the narrative.
But not all games are going to be of that nature and given the players at his disposal, for all third flaws, Newcastle are still in that cluster of teams below Arsenal, Everton and Leicester who could finish ninth or in the bottom three.
Once such ‘rival’ within that group are Cardiff, an opponent they should really be looking to claim three points off, especially based on the Bluebirds’ performance at Bournemouth where they looked a little out of their depth against a side who are of Newcastle’s level, investment or not.
The latter made a decisive contribution against Spurs with a quite brilliant cross to Joselu to equalise in the 11th minute before he was curiously substituted in the 69th minute for Christian Atsu, much to his and the St James’ Park crowd’s anger.
Kenedy could have made his own impact when placed clear on goal by Joselu but instead his heavy touch allowed Hugo Lloris to sprint from goal and save relatively comfortably with the score 2-1 to the visitors.
Both incidents in microcosm demonstrated the respective players’ importance to Benítez’s game plan and also evidence why they can damage a Cardiff side who struggled against Bournemouth’s width at the Vitality Stadium.
By squeezing the midfield he sucked players into the central area, Tottenham’s full-backs tucked in and it opened the field for Ritchie, Kenedy and Yedlin from deep to exploit. Admittedly he was helped by some questionable positioning by Serge Aurier.
Shelvey ranked third among outfield players in the Premier League with five or more appearances, for accurate long passes with 6.2 per 90 minutes. He attempted nine against Tottenham, finding his team-mates four times, which implies more of the same from the midfielder this season.
But for all the quality you have from deep, even if Andrea Pirlo is stationed in there, unless you have a target able to make the most of those raking balls forward, it makes for a fruitless exercise.
Joselu or Rondón are the obvious targets in Benitez’s system but once they’ve won the header and/or held the ball up they require runners from deep. Step forward Kenedy and Ritchie, who are also recipients of Shelvey’s vision as natural wide outlets in an often-congested midfield.
Brazilian Kenedy provided so much when he arrived from Chelsea on loan last season with two goals and three assists in 13 appearances, and although his performances dropped off a little towards the end of the campaign, his pace and penetration proved a key weapon.
He can go beyond full-backs with his pace alone and benefit from consistent knock-downs, however a basic that formula might seem. But without his darts into space behind the defence, everything Newcastle do can become somewhat lateral and one-dimensional.
Ritchie isn’t quite the same dynamic force in full sprint, but has his crossing ability to pick out obvious targetmen such as Joselu or Rondón; the types of strikers Benitez gravitates towards.
Last season the Scottish international was creating 1.03 open play key passes per 90, and 0.2 expected assists (xA). Not earth-shattering but in a predominantly defence-focused side like Newcastle, they are strong numbers; his xA good enough for 28th in the league.
As obvious as it sounds, if Benítez is going to use Joselu or Rondón and the natural aerial threat they provide, he will need an accurate supply line from wide areas in the final third; Shelvey’s set-piece delivery will only get them so far.
Against Tottenham, Ritchie’s crossing was 2/3 and Kenedy 0/2. One of those did result in a goal but to get the most out of whoever leads the line, the volume needs to increase. Against Cardiff, you would imagine that being the case.
Jamaal Lascelles and Shelvey, almost by virtue of them being English, will remain the figureheads of the club on the field and their individual performances are important to Newcastle’s progress but for Benítez’s side to move beyond mere containment, they need Kenedy and Ritchie to deliver.