Should Rafa Benitez play Matt Ritchie at number 10?
For Matt Ritchie, life at Newcastle United has gone rather well so far. His £12million move North from Bournemouth last summer was one of only a few that has fit both the club’s transfer blueprints, old and new. Aged 26 at the time, he blended both experience and sell-on value, while showcasing clear quality. But by leaving the Vitality Stadium to drop down to the Championship, he showed the perfect balance of ambition and belief, proving to Rafa Benitez he was an ideal signing.
It is no surprise, then, that the Scottish international has been a fan-favourite from the moment he pulled on the black and white shirt. Sixteen goals in all competitions last season served only to back up the notion he was not planning on being in the English second tier for long; Newcastle had spent a lot of money assembling a squad of players just like Ritchie, who put egos aside in aid of their long-term vision.
Business has not been as easy or harmonious since, with the purse strings being tightened in the last two windows to Benitez’s frustration. It is clear the Spaniard’s vision for the club and the reality are very different things at the moment, but players like Ritchie, who signalled the original ambition and desire to repair previous damage at any cost, are still the heartbeat of the squad.
For that reason, as Benitez returns to the dugout after illness to welcome Stoke City to St James’ Park on Saturday, fans will flock hoping to see the winger take centre stage, quite literally.
Negativity has engulfed the club since promotion and different factors have killed the momentum that looked set to take them to the next level. How they approach further transfer activity will directly impact Benitez’s future, as will any external interest in his services, but developments on both will have to wait. Coming into this game, the Magpies have won two games on the bounce, conceding in neither; the outlook now seems positive but only this kind of form will keep the storm clouds at bay for the ultimate soap opera club.
Benitez’s impact on the players is as clear as day; the defensive organisation and shape has provided the base for the most timely of upturn in fortunes. Ciaran Clark continues to be spectacularly unspectacular, proving every doubter wrong with each passing game, while club captain Jamaal Lascelles, originally out of the team in favour of Florian Lejeune, has stepped up to fill the gap left by the summer signing from Eibar’s recent injury. He looks fit enough to return, but after scoring the winner and clearing a certain goal off the line at Swansea, it seems unthinkable Lascelles will be sacrificed.
Patterns are emerging in attack, too, but after failing to add a proven Premier League goalscorer or creative midfielder in the summer, Benitez has had to find new ways of setting the front end of the team up. Ayoze Perez is perhaps the biggest enigma in Newcastle at the moment, a player with clear technical ability capable of magic at any point, but one who often struggles to impact games consistently. In such a key area of the pitch, in behind a sole striker and in front of two deeper midfielders, players need to take games by the scruff of the neck, much like the way Ritchie has become accustomed in the last year or so.
Close control, an ability to turn on a sixpence and a ferocious left foot; Ritchie has all the necessary attributes to thrive as creator in the Premier League. His biggest issue is pace; Newcastle are a counter attacking team, and while it would be overkill to suggest he is holding them back in this sense, given the quality Christian Atsu and Rolando Aarons have shown out wide, and his propensity to cut inside anyway, playing Ritchie in a central role only seems like natural progression.
There is a real aura about him, on and off the pitch; confidence is not an issue, neither is aggression. Arguments with opponents are a regular occurrence, but it never goes too far. His availability for this game may be thanks to some luck, given how even he admitted he was lucky not to see red for a high foot on Swansea’s Alfie Mawson last week, just a day after Sadio Mane was sent off for a similar offence.
For a long time now, Ritchie has been Newcastle’s chief creator, and although Benitez does see a lot in Perez in the supporting role, there is an argument to suggest moving Ritchie infield would add another dimension to the attack.
Against both West Ham and Swansea, Newcastle were able to play on the break which suits them perfectly. Mark Hughes is likely to set up firstly not to lose on Saturday, and it could be down to the home side to force the issue; Mikel Merino and/or Jonjo Shelvey will keep the tempo ticking from deep, but a second force must be imposed on the game further up the pitch. Stoke’s physicality is well-documented and must be matched; Perez cannot afford to let the game pass him by and Ritchie gives as good as he gets.
Newcastle fans call him magic and according to his chant on the St James’ Park terraces, he has a magic hat. It can only be debated that there has been a better all round signing in the Benitez era than Matt Ritchie; his popularity supported by a statistic claiming he has sold more shirts in the United Kingdom since July than Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo. Off the pitch, he is a central figure on Tyneside, perhaps now is the time he became that on it, too.