There is an age-old debate in football that certain players are suited to certain leagues. Many believe that to be true, including myself, but many adopt the opinion that a good player is a good player, no matter what league they play in.
Whilst I can understand that logic, the experiences of the likes of Radamel Falcao, Angel di María, Claudio Bravo and Juan Sebastian Verón in the Premier League are prime examples of the theory.
All of those players flourished in foreign leagues but couldn’t quite live up to their price tag during their spells in the Premier League. This is for a number of reasons; physicality, negative tactics, the opposition targeting them more often etc.
Chancel Mbemba and Ayoze Perez are players who always divide opinion amongst the Newcastle United fanbase. Both showed signs of promise in the Premier League but have, for the most part, flattered to deceive in the Championship.
Is this because they are simply “better suited” to the Premier League? Is there really that much of a difference between the divisions? Maybe, it’s because they just are not good enough?
Let’s take a look.
The former Anderlecht defender played 33 of United’s 38 Premier League games last season and regularly stood out for the Magpies. It’s true, he was our best defender last season.
But he played with the ageing duo of Fabricio Coloccini and Steven Taylor, and Jamaal Lascelles only came onto the scene at the tail end of the season.
Is being the best defender out of a group that conceded 65 goals in 38 games an achievement to be lauded? Most certainly not.
Although Mbemba featured heavily under Benitez in the Premier League, this season has shown that the manager is clearly hesitant to trust and rely on his defensive abilities.
The 22-year-old has played in nine games this season and United have lost four of those. The Chronicle reported that, following his disastrous display in the 2-0 home loss to Wolves, Rafa knew it was time for Ciaran Clark to step up and replace him.
Mbemba is a player with tonnes of potential. He showcases a powerful stride, is good on the ball and has an impressive passing success rate of 87%. But these strengths are much less important than the other vital attributes a defender needs to succeed under our manager.
A Rafa Benítez centre-back needs to be positionally aware. Mbemba is not. A Rafa Benítez centre-back needs to be disciplined in committing to tackles. Mbemba is not. A Rafa Benítez centre-back needs to have an aerial presence. Again, Mbemba does not.
Think of Daniel Agger, Sami Hyypia, Jamie Carragher, David Navarro and the likes.
Now, to the argument that Mbemba is “better suited to the Premier League”. How? Okay, he will often come up against a fast, small striker; in which case, I wouldn’t be too worried.
But there is no shortage of strong, aerially dominant strikers in the Premier League. Romelu Lukaku, Olivier Giroud, Diego Costa, Andy Carroll, Islam Slimani. The list goes on.
Mbemba’s weaknesses would still be exploited. In fairness, we tend to forget just how young he is. He has years of development and experience to endure.
One day, if he learns to always defend first, Chancel Mbemba will be a great centre-back with very little weaknesses. But the fact that he has had less defending to do this season and still not earned the trust of his gaffer is a worrying sign of things to come.
Ever since he signed from Tenerife in 2014, I have been an admirer of the technical ability of Ayoze Perez. It wasn’t so long ago that Newcastle fans rejoiced when the Spaniard signed a new long-term contract until 2020 with the club.
On his day, he is a joy to watch. The way he dribbles, drops the shoulder and gets into useful pockets of space is to be admired. He was one of only a few players who Toon fans had high hopes of before this season.
Perez has jostled for a starting position in the number ten role with Mo Diamé all season long. The 23-year-old has netted six goals and has five assists in 32 games in the Championship; nobody would hound you for expecting more.
He has been one of the most frustrating players to play for Newcastle United in recent years. The talent is there. The technique. He is a clever player. But what is his actual position?
When played up front, he went missing too often. When played on the wing, fans pleaded for him to be placed behind the striker and when that was done, he didn’t set the world alight.
As it turns out, finding the right place for this young man in Rafa’s system has been the biggest problem. Unlike Mbemba, my opinion would sway towards those who say Ayoze is better suited to England’s top flight.
This season, most of the opposition have parked the bus against the Magpies. Most of our ball possession is in our own half. Those pockets of space that Perez so often found himself in last season have almost disappeared and his form has suffered as a result.
Newcastle aren’t coming up against the Premier League’s big guns who will commit bodies forward and prioritise attacking over defending; they face weekly draining battles of trying to break down stubborn and well-drilled banks of four.
Part of me feels for Ayoze. I would put my house on him scoring double figures in La Liga for a mid-table side. Having said that, his contributions this season have been disappointing. He has had time to adapt but still only shows flashes of brilliance.
Rafa likes his fellow Spaniard and like many of us, he sees the potential he possesses. This season will have been a steep learning curve for a player who could still have a bright future on Tyneside in the Premier League. Don’t give up on him just yet.