Premier League

Little and large the way forward for faltering Newcastle

 • by Mark Thompson
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Newcastle are down there too, but they’ve got a good manager so they should be able to work things out eventually.’

That line, or variations of it, must have been uttered by almost every Premier League viewer and pundit in the last month. And that’s because the Magpies are 19th in the table and have taken just two points in eight games.

Granted, those matches have not been easy. Newcastle have played all of the top six, bar Liverpool, as well as an in-form Leicester City and Crystal Palace. Nobody will be happy at getting just two points from this early run, but, realistically, few would have expected to get many more.

It isn’t entirely surprising then that their attack has been so ineffective – Newcastle have taken the least shots of any side in the English top flight so far.

But what is a concern is that Rafa Benitez doesn’t seem to know which of his strikers should be leading the line.

Musical chairs

This season the main striker role has alternated between Spanish frontman Joselu and summer recruit Salomón Rondón, although the latter has missed several games due to injury.

But Benitez finally hit the Muto button against Manchester United last weekend and it paid off, with the new signing getting a goal.

Unsurprisingly, many fans are calling for Yoshinori Muto to be given a regular starting spot but after scoring his impact -– bar one header straight at David de Gea from close range – was negligible on the game.

The Japanese striker also has a tendency of drifting towards the left flank during play, which may mean he struggles to impose himself on opponents as a lone forward.

So now that their difficult run of games is at an end – the toughest match, on paper, between now and December is likely to be an away trip to Southampton or a home match against Bournemouth – perhaps Benitez will be more adventurous with his line-ups.

Looking at their Football Whispers persona radars, which show how a team or person plays stylistically, we can see Joselu and Rondón offered very similar things last season for their respective clubs.

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Muto gave his side something different though, and he and Rondón could form a very interesting partnership, almost a throwback to the big man-little man days of 4-4-2.

Newcastle wouldn’t be the only team to go back to this archetype if they played the Japanese and Venezuelan alongside each other; Watford have been having great success with Troy Deeney and Andre Gray in tandem this term.

Playing with a partner would help Rondón as much as it would Muto, too. Despite looking like a traditional, centre-back-barging target man, he is at his most threatening in the penalty area.

Rondón has scored plenty of headers in his time, but very few of them have been about powering his efforts into the net after battling with a defender. More often, they have come from good positioning, ghosting away off the back of a centre-back and then guiding his effort into the net.

If you think of the Venezuelan as less of a target man, then making him hold his own against an entire defence – while the rest of the team is busy defending – doesn’t make as much sense.

A nearby strike partner, with whom he can interchange passes with and offload the ball quickly, rather than needing to hold the ball up for a long time, might help him a lot.

Attack, attack, attack

And it would help Newcastle too. The biggest mistake they made against Manchester United was becoming too conservative when 2-0 ahead.

It was understandable, of course, but ultimately it proved their downfall. In the first thirty minutes of the game, Benitez’s side had their opponents on the ropes, with driving runs through the empty United midfield causing a lot of trouble.

When these runs started to slow down and be less well-supported by the rest of the team, United were able to build a base to get back into the game and go on to claim victory.

Sometimes attack is the best form of defence just because it gives the opponent something to worry about. And that is something for Benitez to think about himself.

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