1. Should Newcastle United switch to the 4-2-3-1 for the next match?
In the past few months, Newcastle has been fielding three central defenders at the back. In attack, this formation is typically a 3-4-2-1 with Almiron and Perez tucked narrowly just behind Rondon. This is undoubtedly meant to afford space and time to Matt Ritchie and Deandre Yedlin on overlapping runs.
In defense, this formation transforms into a 5-4-1 with Ritchie and Yedlin operating as wing-backs. For all the good that the two provide as extra bodies in attack, they have been glaringly targeted by opposition defenses and for good reason. While Newcastle has been staunch in defense, the majority of the goals they have conceded began down the wings.
When Rafa brought on Paul Dummett at half-time against Everton, Newcastle effectively switched to a 4-2-3-1. When Newcastle was in possession, Yedlin (now operating as a right back) was allowed to venture forward, but his base position was further back. Additionally, even when in possession, left-back Paul Dummett stayed behind and operated as a third defender, rarely lumbering up the pitch.
This change seemed to have the desired effect as Newcastle gained solidity in defense and still benefited from having an extra attacker in Yedlin. Given how successful this formation was, it’ll be interesting to see if Rafa will opt to use the 4-2-3-1 formation against Bournemouth on Saturday.
In past weeks, Rafa has remained inclined to stick with the 3-4-2-1 as Schar, Lascelles, and Lejeune had established a formidable partnership. However, with Schar now suspended for the next two games, Rafa would likely find it easier to shift over to the 4-2-3-1 at least temporarily than to bring Federico Fernandez out from the cold to retain the 3-4-2-1. The latter doesn’t seem all too likely as Fernandez hasn’t featured in several weeks.
Perhaps a compromise would be to bring in Dummett as a “like-for-like” replacement of Fabian Schar and preserve the 3-4-2-1, but that wouldn’t do as much to resolve the defensive issues down the wing as outright switching to the 4-2-3-1 formation.
With all this in mind, it makes most sense for Rafa to switch to a 4-2-3-1.
2. Who will pair up with the suddenly-indispensable Isaac Hayden in the heart of midfield?
With Hayden and Longstaff in the midfield, Newcastle was able to achieve the perfect balance of offense and defense. In addition to solid defensive work, Longstaff would often pick the right pass going forward. Now that he is out injured, Benitez has the new problem of trying to find Isaac Hayden a new partner.
Against Everton, Rafa opted for Ki, a player whose game closely resembles Longstaff’s. Though Longstaff is more solid in defense, Ki has a similar game going forward, as he possesses the ability to pick the simple-yet-effective pass with consistency. However, he did not have the most effective game against Everton, and Newcastle looked a far-more dominant side after Ki was replaced by Shelvey.
When Shelvey came on against Everton, he was able to stretch the defense by playing clever through balls. We were finally able to see glimpses of the Jonjo Shelvey that had half of England begging for his inclusion in the Three Lions World Cup squad. To be fair, Jonjo Shelvey’s relative shortcomings aren’t necessarily his fault. Having replaced Dwight Gayle with Salomon Rondon this season, Newcastle no longer had a player capable of running in behind defenses for Jonjo Shelvey to ping balls to. Also, after a quarter of the season, Jonjo Shelvey was dealing with a nagging injury that kept him off the pitch.
However, with the introduction of Almiron into the squad, Newcastle now have a player that Jonjo Shelvey can send through behind opposition lines. We already saw glimpses of this potential connection between Shelvey and Almiron against Everton when Shelvey beautifully passed the ball with the outside of his foot to a willing Almiron.
Although Ki might be a more like-for-like replacement for Longstaff, a forward-thinking Shelvey, who now has a willing runner in Almiron, could add a lethal dimension to Newcastle’s attack.
Rafa Benitez has always been known to ease players back from injury, and his treatment of Jonjo Shelvey has been no different. Minutes in a U-23 match and short outing might mean that Jonjo Shelvey is set for a start against Bournemouth.
However, with Newcastle’s recent struggles on the road, Rafa Benitez might just opt for a more defensive partner for Isaac Hayden. Ki and Diame certainly fit the bill, but the latter would likely be overkill.
Either way, I, for one, will be hoping to see Jonjo Shelvey in the heart of midfield pinging balls to Almiron and maybe even a recently freed-up Ayoze.