As debuts go, Florian Lejeune had one of the worst in recent memory. Just 34 minutes into his first start for Newcastle United, Harry Kane scythed the Frenchman down and his day came to a premature end.
The summer signing was immediately replaced by Chancel Mbemba and the foul caused him to miss the best part of a month. It was hardly the ideal way to acclimatise to his new surroundings and bed himself in.
He returned to the starting XI two months later in the 2-2 draw with Southampton. The Frenchman gave away a late penalty to gift the Saints an equaliser. It was a torrid start to his career with the club but manager Rafael Benítez was quick to defend his summer signing: “He has not played since the opening game against Tottenham and he has been working very hard.
“During the international break he has been training with the team and I am happy because he is a good player who gives us more options at centre-back.”
In the following ten matches Lejeune appeared in, the Magpies picked up just four points and managed to keep one clean sheet.
Though it wasn’t directly his fault, he was part of a Newcastle backline that wasn’t as resilient as many believed they would be. Benítez is famed for his ability to shore teams up but he’d been unable to strike a balance.
On a personal note, the 26-year-old was beginning to find his rhythm and the £8.5million forked out to secure his services in the summer began to look like good value for money.
However, a foot injury in December ruled him out for another two months. In his absence Newcastle started to put points on the board and climbed the table. This coincided with Mohamed Diamé starting more matches and the arrival of Martin Dúbravka on loan during the January transfer window.
Benítez’s backline improved and conceded just nine goals in those eight games but they managed only one clean sheet. Had they been better defensively in certain matches they could have turned three 1-1 draws into three wins and be six points better off.
After all, if a team doesn’t concede they can’t lose.
Since Lejeune’s return to the starting XI, Newcastle have played five matches in the Premier League and kept three clean sheets. The Magpies have picked up just as many points (ten) in those matches than they did in the eight matches the Frenchman missed.
The real Lejeune
The graphic above shows the upturn in form since the one-time Manchester City transfer target regained his place in Newcastle’s starting XI. With Lejeune in the team Benítez’s side have averaged 1.58 goals against per 90, up on the 1.29 they’ve averaged over the season as a whole.
The goals conceded per 90 over the past five matches has dropped to just 0.8. For further context, the team have kept the same amount of clean sheets in the last five matches as in their last 26 games.
It’s not all down to the summer signing but his involvement has played a part in Newcastle’s improvement. He has improved in every metric and, most interestingly, in interceptions per 90 which is significantly up. It shows he’s reading the game much better now and he’s at home in the Newcastle defence.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The 26-year-old’s awareness has always been one of his strengths. Last season he made an average of 2.33 interceptions per 90, a number that was significantly higher than that achieved by either of Lascelles or Clark.
The Parisian defender has also come to terms with the physicality of the Premier League. His average of 3.6 aerial duels won per 90 is higher than he averaged with Eibar last season (3.27).
Over the course of 2016/17 campaign, Lejeune won more tackles than either of the Magpies’ former first choice centre-backs. He won 1.03 compared to Lascelles’ 0.54 and Clark’s 0.74; his average for Newcastle this term has stayed similar.
These stats are, of course, dependant on the system he’s being used in but it shows he’s fairly consistent despite switching leagues.
The ex-Girona man has finally settled into his role at St James’ Park and is bound to be even better next season. The £8.5million the club paid for him, in the current market, now looks to be a bargain and yet another Benítez masterstroke.