It has been a rollercoaster ride for Ayoze Perez. Since his transfer from Tenerife, he has scored 19 times, played under four different managers, watched a team-mate survive cancer (then save the club from relegation) and played in two different divisions. He has only been at Newcastle for two and a half years.
Throughout it all, nobody has ever doubted that he is a player who is blessed with immense talent. I remember his very first taste of English football. When he sprinted onto the pitch against Manchester City back in August 2014, hair slicked back, socks pulled up and his shirt about two sizes too large. He was signed for Peter Beardsley's developmental squad, but the board's lack of ambition had seen Alan Pardew have little choice but to throw him in at the deep end.
The chance he had to equalise will always stick in my mind. An aimless long ball was chased down and struck less than an inch wide of the far post. It appeared to ignite some sort of belief in the young man. Maybe he was ready for this level. Winning goals against Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool, along with more league strikes, made him one of the only shining lights in an otherwise dismal campaign. Newcastle United were of course saved on the final day thanks to the fairy-tale ending that was Jonas Gutierrez's Newcastle career. Ayoze Perez deserved a lot of credit though for the fact that the club were still in the Premier League.
Then there was the infamous Steve McClaren era. The beginning of the 2015/16 season saw Perez drop down to the bench. A poor start, though, lead to him being granted his chance. He partnered with new signing Aleksandar Mitrovic against Chelsea and scored a brilliant goal, whilst putting in a typical industrious display throughout.
That was as good as it got for him though, unfortunately. The season somehow ended up being worse than the previous. McClaren was gone by February after newly promoted Bournemouth came to St James' and won 3-1. A game in which Perez actually scored.
With ten games to play and Newcastle deep in the relegation mire, enter Rafael Benitez. With his appointment, supporters put 2 and 2 together, figuring that "Ayoze" would be the big beneficiary of his countryman's tutelage. Something still wasn't clicking for him though. The new manager, like a lot of fans, clearly did not understand exactly were Perez fitted into his system. Thus, he barely featured in the club's 10 game run-in and they were relegated.
Shockingly, Benitez agreed to stay with the club in the second division of England, a testament to the fans and their undying support for Rafa and for their club. Amidst the restoration of hope, many (as well as myself) were expecting a promotion charge spearheaded by Ayoze Perez.
So what is happening with the talented forward now?
That is the million dollar question. From the very beginning, despite a wonderful pre-season, it became abundantly clear that Championship defenders knew how to deal with him. Against Fulham on the opening day, Perez took too much time on the ball and was repeatedly told to get to his feet after some strong challenges. The physicality of the division was perhaps underestimated, and barring a couple of sterling performances, Perez has flattered to deceive thus far.
He has played as a striker, as a number ten, and even on the left wing. Still though, the uncertainty remains as to where his is best suited. When it pertains to him playing as a centre forward, he is not necessarily fast enough to blitz defenders, or strong enough to hold up the play. On the wing, his positional sense is always found to be lacking. Unlike Yoan Gouffran, he does not offer the left full-back any defensive support, making him a liability if anything. Then you watch him playing as a "10". You would think his finesse with the ball at his feet and his sharp movements would make him very effective there, but something always seems to be missing.
I have noticed that he can be very static. He tends to float in between the opposition midfield and defence, without actually making any sort of penetrating runs to find space. He often picks up possession in areas of high traffic and gets tackled before being able to lift his head and make a pass, or attempt a dribble. Of course, this will come as he matures, but I cannot help but feel that we need him to perform now if we are to pull away from the chasing pack.
So where should he play?
Rafa always uses his 4-2-3-1 system, which has worked for him throughout managerial career. Other managers in this league though will simply come to St James' Park and deploy 10 men behind the ball. Blackburn did this very well, as did Wolves earlier in the season. In those games, there was simply no space in behind for Dwight Gayle, no room for Mitrovic to take anything under control and Jonjo Shelvey was ultimately restricted to shooting from distance.
A simple tweak that could be made is reverting to a 4-3-3 false nine system, with Ayoze Perez operating at the top of a midfield triangle, decreasing the space between himself and Shelvey. This would allow him to pick up possession slightly deeper and use the false nine as a pivot (who would be occupying the centre backs). This then gives Perez the licence to interchange with the striker and use the created space to work his magic.
This is going to make the with very important. Matt Ritchie and Yoan Gouffran are excellent in terms of tracking back, but they will need to show a lot of energy to burst forward as well. They will need to offer Perez attacking outlets to pick out and will either make or break this system.
Although he has not caught fire as expected just yet, I find it very difficult to believe that Ayoze Perez will not eventually make his mark in this team. His natural talent is too great to allow him to fall by the wayside and I still stand by my belief that this man will be crucial in our fight for promotion.