On the horizon is April – the business end of the season. Coming off the back of three great results at Brighton, Huddersfield and Reading that earned United seven points from nine away from home against three of the best teams in the league, it feels like we are now stumbling towards promotion.
Games at home to Wigan and Burton fast approach, and six points from these games would put Newcastle in a great position going into the last few games.
Rafa Benitez must have one eye on next season already, and assuming he has the backing he needs in the transfer market, there has to be question marks over some members of the squad should a Premier League campaign await.
Looking at the squad as a whole, there is strength in depth – two players for each position at least and certainly lots of competition. The work that Rafa did in the transfer market last summer cannot be downplayed – for the first time in a long time, Newcastle have options.
One of the obvious question marks has to be over Matz Sels, a goalkeeper with experience at the highest level who has appeared to have lost his way since joining the Toon. Rafa obviously saw something in the keeper – that’s why he was brought in. However, should a Premier League campaign beckon, mistakes have to be avoided at all costs and with Matz Sels in goal, there is often a feeling that a mistake not far away.
Can Rafa bring out the best in the Belgian international? If anyone can, Rafa can. Keeping Sels on after the summer would be a gamble regardless of what league Newcastle are in and with two other goalkeepers in Darlow and Elliot on the books with Premier League experience, it seems likely that Sels will be available for transfer.
Jesus Gamez, like Massadio Haidara, has struggled for fitness and has barely had the chance to show anyone what he is capable of. Vurnon Anita seems comfortable at right back and with competition from DeAndre Yedlin, both of which also have Premier League experience, it is hard to see Gamez staying on. The same can be said for Haidara; someone who, at times, shows so much promise. Whilst questions also remain over the fitness of Paul Dummett and whether Achraf Lazaar can make it at the top level or not, a new left back may be required to provide adequate cover in addition to another right back, should Rafa opt to not extend Vurnon Anita’s contract.
In the centre of defence, Newcastle appear well stocked. Lascelles, Hanley, Mbemba and Clark are all fighting for two places. It appears that Rafa has issues with Chancel Mbemba (many theories on this range from poor training to a lack of concentration) and despite many calls for him to be given a chance, he may be leaving St James’. Lascelles and Clark both have experience in the Premier League and appear to work well together and Hanley would be a useful squad player, so another centre back will be required.
This brings us to the wings, an area that Rafa clearly wants to bolster and a new winger or two surely will arrive – possibly three. Currently, Newcastle have Ritchie, Atsu, Aarons, Gouffran and Ameobi as their wide men. Gouffran and Ameobi will likely be playing football elsewhere next year and Christian Atsu is by no means guaranteed to be staying. Rolando Aarons is another player who can’t be relied upon to remain fit.
In the centre of the park, big things will be expected from Jonjo Shelvey and Mo Diame. Isaac Hayden will finally get his chance to shine at a higher level but Jack Colback, on the other hand, must be seen as far too inconsistent and although he can’t be faulted for effort, there must be better options available.
Finally, the striking area, which poses questions for everyone. Dwight Gayle is prolific in the Championship, but can he do it in the Premiership? Mitrovic loves the club, but has rarely been given a chance in the Championship. Perez is hit and miss and hasn’t had the best of seasons and Daryl Murphy may not be up to playing week in, week out in the highest league. Gayle deserves a chance and Perez clearly is a decent player; it’s just a case of finding a way to get the best out of him.
Unfortunately for Alexandar Mitrovic, it just hasn’t happened for him at Newcastle for a number of reasons. Whether it’s the formation he is being played in, a lack of support, adjustment to the league(s) or any other reason, it’s time for a fresh start – which is a shame as he clearly loves the club and wants to do well.
So that’s approximately ten out and ten in. It seems far-fetched, but we have seen similar things happen before. Unlike other seasons where United have chased players that are needed to fill vacant positions, we are now chasing players to upgrade on what we have – another longstanding problem that Rafa quickly resolved. What a great position to be in.
Hopefully Newcastle can get promotion wrapped up – quickly – so that the club can start to properly prepare for next season and we can all start looking at the transfer market. It would be nice to see a well-planned approach to the summer that will leave the squad with similar balance and cover everywhere for what could be an exciting campaign.
Time will tell, but for now only one thing is for certain – let the Andy Carroll rumours begin!