To this point in the Premier League season, Rafa Benítez has made clear that his plan is to continue playing in his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation despite not having an attacking playmaker to sit between the holding midfielders and the lone striker. In this absence, Rafa has relied on Ayoze Pérez in this position, yielding less than desirable results through three matches. It’s difficult to place the entirety of the blame on Pérez - Ayoze’s skillset is not conducive to playing in the attacking midfield as a facilitator, leading to Newcastle completing only a single solitary through ball per game. It’s no coincidence that Ayoze’s best stretch of play this season came after Aleksander Mitrović came into the match Saturday, as Mitrović’s ability to hold possession, draw defenders and link up with Pérez serve to enhance the Spaniard’s abilities as the second striker in a pair.
So who, then, should replace Pérez? Naturally, the position of attacking creator has been a priority in the transfer market for the club and its supporters, with Dennis Praet from Sampdoria the most recent target. Given that Diame has not been starting, Rafa certainly doesn’t believe that he has the quality to start in a Premier League side after making 37 league appearances in the Championship.
A look at advanced analytics suggests another option, one that I would humbly offer as the best use of the personnel currently at Rafa’s disposal - move Matt Ritchie into the middle of the park.
Look at the player position map below - ten of the eleven players for Newcastle had an average position very close to their theoretical starting position. The one exception? Ritchie, whose average position placed him in a central attacking cluster between Pérez and Joselu.
Let’s now look at the player positions for the match against Huddersfield:
And the opening match of the season against Tottenham:
Ritchie has never played as a traditional winger, staying in an alley along the touchlines and providing verticality. Ritchie has been more of a target winger, serving as a playmaker from out wide while roaming and reacting to the action of the match. Additionally, Ritchie’s lack of pace for a winger, which went unpunished in the Championship, has been glaring through three Premier League matches. By moving Ritchie centrally, Rafa will not only be freed up to play another more traditional winger, either Rolando Aarons or Jacob Murphy, taking advantage of the one position of depth and quality that Newcastle has - he will also be playing Ritchie in a space he's already occupying, ensuring greater overall team width and spacing.
On to four other quick analytical notes from the match:
- Few Newcastle players have proven to be as divisive as Mitrović since he joined the club in 2015. The critiques aren’t unfounded: Mitro has proven to be easily taken out of matches mentally, and his goalscoring record has been less than stellar. This being said, Mitro made the most of the opportunity given to him on Saturday, coming on in the 71st minute and using his twelve touches to win two aerials, provide two key passes, and take three shots, two of which were on target and one of which found the back of the net for the final goal of the match. Mitro looked a player who wanted nothing more in the world than to be on the pitch on Saturday, a quality that cannot be overlooked.
- With Paul Dummett out of commission for a considerable stretch of matches, Newcastle will be relying on players playing out of position to slot in as a left back. Rafa’s defender of choice so far has been Chancel Mbemba, who has taken the opportunity and performed admirably. Mbemba led Newcastle in tackles and interceptions on Saturday and finished behind Ciaran Clark in clearances while rendering West Ham’s right attacking midfielder, Mikhail Antonio, ineffective. As with Mitrović, Mbemba spent the summer and beginning of this season fighting speculation on his place in the team and has performed admirably given the chance.
- West Ham midfielder Declan Rice received the brunt of the blame for Newcastle’s first goal, giving up possession in the midfield under pressure from Matt Ritchie. The derision, however, doesn’t align with the statistical performance put in by Rice, still just 18, who completed over 92% of his passes and finished the match with West Ham’s second-highest WhoScored score before being removed at the half. The ball was lost in a position where Newcastle still had significant work to do, and without Mikel Merino's beautiful through ball to Atsu, there's unlikely to be a goal at the end. Rice may have lost possession, but it was the test of the West Ham side that conceded the goal and allowed two more in the second half to lose the match.
- Speaking of WhoScored, who finished the match as West Ham’s top performer? None other than Joe Hart, a keeper who let in three goals and kicked the ball directly into a Newcastle player twice in the first half. There are a number of statistics that could be used to show how rough of a match West Ham had, but this is tops.