The heart of the defense will make or break any football team, this is something everybody knows and something Rafa Benitez has been thinking about ever since he joined Newcastle United. I honestly don’t think our defense will struggle like fellow writer Chris does, but I do think there are a few questions at the Centre-back position.
With Chancel Mbemba being told to leave, but still getting good amounts of play time, Lascelles playtime and captaincy up in the air, Clark still being consistently consistent and new boy Florian Lejeune playing well all preseason there are a lot of questions that need to be answered when it comes to this unit. Oh, and yeah, Grant Hanley is still here for some reason.
Rafa’s group of ball playing Centre-backs will have many challenges this season going up against attacking duos and trios that were loads better than who they faced the previous season (except Lejeune because he has faced the likes of LSM, Ronaldo, Bale, and Griezeman). Before they get into the season, they need to figure out one important little detail: who the hell is starting.
Cirian Clark joined newcastle as a summer signing that would help them succeed in the Championship. To many fans he was going to be a good depth signing because our “clear starters” were Mbemba and Lascelles, a duo that played a good amount of games together to close out the previous season. Little did we know, that Clark was going to muscle his way into Rafa’s first team and truly excel.
A season later, and it doesn’t look like Clark has taken any steps back. He’s still able to play good enough balls to start attacks, find the open man, and of course actually defend. He’s consistently played well all preseason and I don’t expect him to struggle in the Premier League. I am a firm believer that Newcastle should be able to beat, if not beat comfortably, contend against every team outside of the top 8. Our only really tough games will be against the likes of Liverpool, the Manchester teams, Chelsea, etc. Clark should not have trouble tracking the runs of Troy Deeney, Sam Baldock and Hugo Llorente. That being said, I would be shocked if he is left out of the first team this Sunday against Spurs. He is a quality player, with good work rates, and is probably our most reliable defender we have. If Rafa chooses to change captains don’t be surprised if Clark comes out wearing the armband. Shelvey of course is my pick for a possible replacement captain, but Clark is a reliable defender, mature and has the experience to lead this team.
Lejeune is an odd case. He came as a bit of a shock to many fans, simply because fans had not heard of him. He spent last season at Eibar and has previously “played” for Man City. Lejeune has spent his whole playing career playing against world class strikers about 6-10 times a year. Playing the likes of Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, and Barca multiple times a season. In other words, he’s seen some great attackers and I don’t expect him to be phased by anyone he sees in the Premier League.
That being said, I do however think he will struggle in his first few games because the PL is vastly different from La Liga. It is a more physical league and he will have to learn to use his body against bigger strikers like Llorente and Lukaku.
From what we have been able to gather from the preseason, Lejeune, like the rest of the Centre-backs we have, is very good on the ball. He also is wonderful inside the 6 yard box, making strong tackles and providing a lot of “no nonsense” clearings. Due to his constant play time in the preseason, and the injury to Lascelles, he has one leg up on Lascelles in terms of a starting position. Expect to see him start this Sunday, and honestly expect to see him start the majority of games this season.
Lascelles may or may not be the captain. Nobody is really sure yet. If he is the captain that could hurt Newcastle at the back, because I think, and the majority of fans think, that he is not one of our top 2 Centre-backs at the moment.
I am not saying Lascelles got worse, I am simply saying that Lejeune is better. This is what Rafa wants: competition for every position. I think he hurts the team if Lascelles is still captain, because that would require Lascelles to start. If Lascelles is starting he won’t be doing whatever he can to break into the first team and really try to improve himself the way Rafa wants him to. That being said, I think Lascelles will start this year on the bench and will lose the captains armband to
Mitrovic Shelvey. He will make great leaps in his ability though, having to compete for that coveted starting spot. Healthy competition will be good for the youngster (people forget he’s only 23), and the lack of immediate starts will allow him to grow into being a competent PL level Centre-back. In a couple of years don’t be surprised if you see him lifting a trophy (again).
Mbemba was supposed to be gone last season, but here we are a couple of days from the start of the season and he’s still here. I’ll be the first to tell you, I don’t hate it. The guy can play, but initially was not in Rafa’s plans. He was told again this season that he can begin searching for a new club, but he instead turned himself into an actual decent player for Rafa to keep around. Mbemba has been willing to pay at both Centre-back positions as well as Right Back in order to stick around. He has been rewarded with play time from Rafa throughout the preseason , so I would expect him to be around for at least the first part of the season.
Mbemba is a pretty decent defender and played fine alongside Colocinni his first season. Ability wise he belongs in this team, Rafa just did not have him in his plans for the team. Maybe he doesn’t like Mbemba’s work ethic or play style or maybe he just wants to bring in a guy who he thinks is the next David Luiz. For now Mbemba has found a home as a utility player and has not complained about his role. You can at least appreciate the guy’s willingness to remain with the squad and turn himself into an asset unlike some of the other blokes asked to leave. Expect Mbemba to be played when Rafa looks to rotate the team, some cup matches, and off the bench as a utility defender (a larger Anita).
There is not much to say about Grant. He has been one of the few players who knows his time is done and has been trying to leave. There has been a lot of interest for him from Championship Clubs, which sounds about right. Even Sunderland were linked to him at one point. Hanley could be good, we just have never seen him play. I do think this guy could have a very bright future if he is given the time to develop. This is why I would much rather Newcastle loan him out than straight up sell him. He could be quality after playing a full season in the Championship, where he would be a starting 11 CB for the majority of the teams there.
Nonetheless, he is at Newcastle and patiently awaiting the next phase of his career. Don’t expect to see him play at all for Newcastle unless he pulls the Centre-back equivalent of what Marcus Rashford did, or 2 or more Centre-backs get injured. He is a great guy with a bight future, that future however, may not be with Newcastle.
This season this unit overall should not struggle. There will be some bumps in the road, but in the end the unit will gel together and play well. There is going to be healthy competition between Rafa’s 4 Centre-backs of choice (#SorryGrant), which should only lead to the CB unit as a whole getting better. With a great manager like Rafa, it should be exciting to see what these boys can do.
** Editor’s Note** Lascelles has officially been named captain.