Andrew Gastelum

Player Analysis

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The Return of Newcastle

Friday, June 16, 2017


It wasn’t simple or easy, but it sure looked the part: Newcastle is back in the Premier League after a one-year absence. It took the uncompromising presence of fan-favorite Rafa Benitez to convince owner Mike Ashley to buy into his formula for success and the gamble paid off with a first place finish in the Championship during a campaign that was never truly in doubt.

 

Last summer, where just one year prior he was in charge of the eventual Champions League winners in Real Madrid before he was sacked for Zinedine Zidane to begin his blossoming managerial legacy, Benitez stuck with Newcastle, the team he nearly saved from relegation in less than two months as manager. Now, he finds himself back in the Premier League with full control of a team he masterminded.

 

Out went problem-starting star Moussa Sissoko and the talented Remy Cabella, top goalscorer Georginio Wijnaldum, English and Dutch internationals Andros Townsend and Daryl Janmaat, and a number of other aging starters like Fabricio Coloccini, Papiss Cisse and Steven Taylor. And with all of those sales, Benitez was able to convince the stars of his upcoming campaign, Matt Ritchie, Ciaran Clark, Dwight Gayle, Mohamed Diame and DeAndre Yedlin, to drop down to the second flight in order to realize their full potential, while also putting £23 million in Ashley’s pocket.

 

And despite a shaky start that featured two straight losses, from mid-October, the Magpies never dropped below second place in the Championship table, finishing joint-top in goals scored (85), joint-top in goals allowed (40), first in goal differential (+45) and first in every attendance category.

 

Now, they re-enter the Premier League with a full season of Benitez, a significantly different squad (only five starters return from their last Premier League match) and a whole lot to prove. So ahead of Newcastle’s return and a new fantasy season, let’s take a look at some of its key players.

 

 

KEY PLAYERS:

 

 

GK – Karl Darlow

Darlow enters the upcoming season as Benitez’s trusted keeper of choice after he beat out newcomer Matz Sels, Rob Elliot and longtime Premier League veteran Tim Krul. Darlow put together an impressive season with 13 clean sheets in the Championship while heralding a defense that conceded only 40 goals in 46 matches. And at 26 years old, the Englishman has a bright future ahead of him, we just don’t know whether it will be at Newcastle.

 

That’s because Benitez has been targeting a goalkeeper in recent weeks, one with top-flight experience even though he still has Tim Krul returning from loan at AZ Alkmaar. Recent reports suggest Benitez considers a goalkeeper as a top priority and is looking at Middlesbrough’s Victor Valdes, now a free agent, along with West Ham keeper Adrian. So for now at least, it seems best to stick with a defender as your way of breaking into a revamped Newcastle defense.

 

DEF – DeAndre Yedlin

Yedlin has always been a favorite, obviously, of American fantasy owners, but his previous stint in the Premier League didn’t result in much other than much-needed top-flight experience. But the loan move to Sunderland endeared him to life in the Northeast, and he sealed a permanent transfer to Newcastle last summer. And despite the drop into the second division, it looks to be exactly the move he needed and potentially a career-changing one at that.

 

The former Seattle Sounders product made 27 appearances for Benitez, who sometimes opted for Vurnon Anita at the position. But Yedlin made massive improvements to his defensive acumen, his biggest weakness when arriving from MLS, while also contributing five assists from a defensive position. However, the position is a weak spot for Newcastle with very little depth, which could see Benitez move for some competition at right-back.

 

DEF – Jamaal Lascelles

Now you can’t have a list of key players without the club’s captain. Benitez must see something special in a 23-year-old to name him captain on a team still with a heavy veteran presence. But last season was a good glimpse of how reliable and important Lascelles was to a completely different look at Newcastle’s backline, which often featured three new starters from the prior year.

 

Only Paul Dummett played more minutes last season than Lascelles, who formed a formidable partnership with newcomer Ciaran Clark overcoming Chancel Mbemba for a starting role. It’s clear that Lascelles will be a major cog of Benitez’s setup this season, not just as captain but also as a no-frills, athletic defender.

 

MID – Mohamed Diame

Diame is one of Newcastle’s core of Premier League veterans that took a step down into the Championship, despite helping Hull City back into the Premier League, only to return to the top flight with Hull heading back down. During his two seasons with Hull City, Diame contributed 14 goals (including four in the Premier League). However, Benitez seems to have completely rebranded Diame, and for the better.

 

With better attacking options in midfield like Jonjo Shelvey and Matt Ritchie, Benitez has placed Diame in a more central role where he dominated the midfield last season paired alongside the more defensive Jack Colback, both of whom lead the club in passing  accuracy. And yet, Diame was still able to contribute three goals and three assists last season but his role as an attacker has seriously diminished, meaning be wary of relying on him for consistent points just because of his past record.

 

MID – Matt Ritchie

Of all the players who made the jump down to the Championship from the Premier League, it was Matt Ritchie who surprised me the most. In his first real season in the Premier League, Ritchie was Bournemouth’s star player, adding four goals and six assists to go with the 15 goals and 17 assists that saw him tear up the Championship in Bournemouth’s rise to the Premier League.

 

But seemingly tempted by a pay rise, Ritchie moved on to become Benitez’s most well-rounded weapon. The Scottish winger finished second in every major attacking category at the club: goals scored (12), assists (seven), key passes per game (1.7) and shots per game (2.7), while also finishing first in crosses (1.8). To me, Ritchie is the real star of the club, the engine in attack and the most proven to bring you fantasy points in the Premier League.

 

FWD – Dwight Gayle

At the time for Crystal Palace, selling Dwight Gayle looked like a steal. Here was a forward the club had paid a club-record £4.5 million for in 2013, one who hardly played heading into last summer, and someone wanted to pay £10 million for him. No brainer, except, Gayle goes on to realize his full potential under Benitez’s tutelage at the tune of 23 Championship goals, second only to Leeds United forward Chris Wood.

 

Despite all of the acclaimed competition up top, prized signings in Aleksandar Mitrovic and Ayoze Perez, it was Gayle who became the talisman, scoring a league goal every 93 minutes. So there should be no doubt about who will lead the line for the Magpies in the upcoming season, and I think it’s safe to say we should be excited to see what the unproven, chip-on-his-shoulder forward will do in his first real crack at the Premier League as a bona fide starter.

 






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