When Newcastle United confirmed the signing of Yoshinori Muto from Mainz in the summer, there was a sense of quiet optimism. But, so far, it has not gone as planned.
The Japanese international is yet to start a Premier League game for his new club and, according to manager Rafa Benítez, has struggled to adapt to a new division. When he has been introduced as a substitute, Muto has played predominantly as a No.10 or in wide areas.
It is perhaps understandable that Benítez is reluctant to throw Muto straight into the fray. A period of adjustment is an inevitability when new to the Premier League, and for some it is a more difficult, protracted process.
Newcastle, though, are approaching a point of desperation. Their worrying lack of firepower is in danger of leaving them adrift at the bottom of the league. Even Benítez, praised for guiding the club to a tenth-placed finish last season with a limited squad, will struggle to keep up a team that cannot find the net.
The stats do not bode well for the Magpies: they have scored just four goals in seven Premier League games – only Huddersfield Town have fewer (three). They have managed just 52 scoring attempts and have an expected goals (xG) average of 0.88 per game.
Those who have been trusted to score the majority of Newcastle’s goals – namely Joselu and Ayoze Pérez – have found the net just twice between them. That, clearly, is not good enough. Chances have been at a premium, but Newcastle need a forward who can convert when opportunities arise, however rarely that is.
Perhaps, then, it is time to offer Muto his chance. What could go wrong? Benítez has made clear his belief that Muto needs time, but Newcastle do not have it. And if something does not change soon it is difficult to see a way out of this unenviable situation.
“To be fair, he has been unlucky because when he went on at Cardiff, we had to change the system and he had to go as a midfielder, and the other day when we put him on the pitch, we changed to 4-1-4-1 [against Chelsea] at the end, so he had to go back too,” Benítez has told the Chronicle. “He was not playing in his ideal position in the games he has played, but he might do soon.”
Benítez still appears unconvinced, although he has praised Muto’s commitment in training. And even during his brief cameos this season – he has played a total of just 86 minutes in the Premier League – Muto has shown glimpses of potential. He has averaged 1.04 key passes per game – albeit from a very small sample size. That, though, is a significant upgrade on Matt Ritchie and Kenedy, who have averaged 0.4 and 0.2 respectively.
Newcastle need an influx of energy and Muto might provide it. He scored eight goals in the Bundesliga last season for a low-scoring Mainz team, four more than Joselu scored in the Premier League. His average goals per 90 minutes (0.37) was also significantly better than Joselu’s (0.2). And that was from significantly fewer chances: Muto averaged 1.74 scoring attempts per game, compared to 2.46 for Joselu. Finally, a Goals-xG ratio of 1.34, in comparison to Joselu’s 0.58, suggests Muto is more clinical.
No doubt Newcastle are aware of this. They would not have signed Muto had they not been aware of his track record. But Benítez’s reluctance to start the 26-year-old surely can’t continue for much longer.
At Mainz, Muto was highly regarded. “He’s not a striker that stands still and waits for the ball,” the club’s former manager, Martin Schmidt, told their official website. “Yoshi, with his engine and his passion, did what [Shinji] Okazaki was doing for us before he left. I was delighted with his performance. He was relentless in irritating and pressuring the opposition, and, in a way, was our first line of defence, perhaps even the most important. By working so hard, he took a lot of pressure off our defenders.”
The January transfer window will allow Newcastle to make some much needed investment – should Mike Ashley agree to it, of course – but that is still months away. For now, Newcastle are left with what they have got, and they will need to utilise the players at their disposal if they are to climb up the table.
Muto may be unaccustomed to the famed – and slightly exaggerated – physicality of the Premier League. He may not yet have fully integrated within the team. He may struggle too in a side that evidently lacks creativity. But if Newcastle do not give him a proper chance to lead the line, they are almost certain to continue their dismal rate of scoring.