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Lejeune and the Future of Newcastle Tactics

What Newcastle’s shiny new center back could indicate about next season’s formation

On Tuesday, Newcastle United announced its first new signing of the summer transfer window, bringing in center back Florian Lejeune from SD Eibar on a five year deal for a fee of £8.7 million. This has been the only real news to come from United this window (save the permanent addition of Christian Atsu) and there doesn’t seem to be any imminent business, so the club have milked the signing for a few days of stories, causing the press to follow suit. In the days since signing, the Chronicle have published a number of pieces covering different aspects of Lejeune’s addition, including a piece published Friday about whether the French defender hinted at possible changes to formation and tactics. Unlike most such pieces (with apologies to Messrs. Ryder and Douglas of the Chron), this article caught my imagination and has forced me to think deeper about what strategies Rafa may employ in the coming term.

The article in question takes some admitted liberties in extrapolating potential changes to formation, speculating that Lejeune’s comment that he prefers to play “in the middle of the defence, whether that’s part of a two or a three” signifies the possible implementation of a 3-5-2 formation next season. While the assumption that this is what Lejeune means is tenuous at best, I have been thinking for the past few weeks that transfer rumors and activity could lead one to assume this to be a possibility.

Building out from the back, Newcastle now has three Premier League-level center backs on the side in Lejeune, Clark and Lascelles. Assuming Lejeune would prefer to play in the middle, Clark would be an easy choice to start to his left given his experience as a center back and left back in traditional formations and on the side of a 3-5-2 for Paul Lambert’s Aston Villa sides, leaving Lascelles to cover the right.

For the right wingback position, the obvious answer is DeAndre Yedlin, who has shown to be an effective wingback in this formation at the international level. Additionally, his versatility as both a right back and a winger this past season hint at his ability to play the position. On the left side, there’s no obvious answer currently on the roster; however, a close look at the pictures shared from the first day of training could provide some clues.

In the photo above, left-sided players, whether wingers (Rolando Aarons) or fullbacks (Achraf Lazaar, Jesús Gámez), are training in the same group, along with Ayoze Perez. It’s possible that Rafa is setting the groundwork early for the potential of all wing-oriented players getting time as wingbacks as the season gets underway. Indeed, Aarons has filled in as a left back in his career, which could indicate his ability to play the wingback position. Additionally, Kieran Gibbs, rumored to be on Newcastle’s radar this window, has shown the pace and work rate required to play wingback while healthy despite being dispatched primarily as a left back.

In the midfield, a 3-5-2 will typically employ the same triangle of center midfielders as the 4-2-3-1 / 4-4-1-1 formation favored by Benitez in the most recent term. Here, we could expect to see Jonjo Shelvey return to his role in a central pairing, while Matt Ritchie, who has shown ability of playing in the middle in the past, could be deployed at the top of the triangle. I don’t believe that the answer to who plays alongside Shelvey is currently on the Newcastle roster, which is true regardless of formation.

In the two forward spots, the current roster would assume Dwight Gayle be the first name pencilled into the matchday XI, leaving space next to him. It would be preferable to bring in a starting caliber striker to play alongside Gayle, but from the current roster I would expect Aleksander Mitrović to have the best luck in this formation, given the increased value of holding the ball, linking up with your fellow striker and attacking crosses placed on forwards in the 3-5-2.

As the roster currently stands, a starting XI could look something like this, with names in parentheses indicating positions that would be better addressed in the transfer market and with Perez as the likely utility sub, potentially able to play five of the ten outfield spots:

As is clear in the above lineup, the three primary positions of need are the left wingback, holding midfielder playing next to Jonjo, and a second striker, with a fourth need of center back before Lejeune was added. These also happen to be the positions most heavily linked with Newcastle United in transfer rumor activity, with players like Ruben Semedo, Tammy Abraham, Kieran Gibbs, Andreas Samaris and Bas Dost all receiving significant play in recent weeks.

Of course, it’s entirely possible if not likely that this entire exercise is an overreaction to a canned throwaway answer from a new player, as canned throwaway answers are to a good extent all that we have been given in this window. Activity will pick up now that it is July and players will undoubtedly be brought in that haven’t yet been mentioned, but the experimentation with a 3-5-2 in Newcastle’s return to the Premier League wouldn’t be the worst idea, given the need to defend with numbers in all three zones while also being poised to spring counterattacks, as possession will likely be in short supply against top clubs. If nothing else, it would give Newcastle fans something new and interesting to watch, to digest, to analyze, and to debate, which is most of what brought each of us to fandom in the first place.