Newcastle United’s signing of Joe Willock on loan along with their midseason switch to a diamond midfield shook up the look of a group of players in need of it. Steve Bruce has opted in their last two games however for a three man midfield after the diamond appeared to lose its effectiveness. The addition of Miguel Almiron as an option in the three is an interesting wrinkle as well. The question is which players compliment each other the best?
The switch to the diamond midfield in Matchweek 21 brought pressures to their peak over the next few games as Newcastle stuck to the formation. But the numbers have started to fall recently and it looks like 5-3-2 is the new preferred way to play which seems to have less of an emphasis on the pressing. It’s something for Bruce to keep in mind when he selects his midfield as less will be asked of those in the center of the pitch defensively.
The table above shows selected stats for the group of central midfielders this season. I used all of those stats except minutes played and plugged them into an algorithm called K-Means Clustering to generate three groups of players.
The Destroyers: Isaac Hayden, Sean Longstaff, Matty Longstaff and Jeff Hendrick
Hayden is known for his defensive contributions, both Longstaffs for their energy and Hendrick for being a Swiss army knife. All don’t add much going forward in possession and need to be paired with a more progressive midfielder to be effective. Some fans have expected Hayden or the Longstaff brothers to become more of an all-round threat, but Hayden seems most comfortable when doing less and the Longstaff brothers haven’t had enough playing time to grow yet. Jeff Hendrick is...Jeff Hendrick.
The Creators: Jonjo Shelvey and Joe Willock
Definitely the most surprising grouping here. Willock and Shelvey are nothing like each other when you watch them play. But their raw output is actually quite similar. Their passing is very progressive as well as their carries. Both add a decent goal threat and have a high number of key passes, shot-creating actions and expected assists. They differ in their defensive work rate though with Willock outshining Shelvey in pressures and tackles plus interceptions. Also, Willock tends to receive the ball further forward. Willock is known for being an all-round player and it could be interesting to see him asked to do more as a passer. Shelvey has started to sit deeper in midfield recently which could maximize his time on the ball while allowing him to conserve his energy.
The Unicorn: Miguel Almiron
Often deployed as a winger or forward, Miguel Almiron’s stats are definitely skewed here but even in midfield I would expect him to be at the top of the group for creative and finishing metrics. His work-rate is well known as well which should help him contribute in midfield. I would expect either him or Willock to start in the more creative number eight role in the three man midfield. Almiron’s expected assists, shot-creating actions and passes into the penalty area top the group, which is why he should be almost undroppable regardless of position.
Assuming the 5-3-2 formation is continued with in the coming weeks here is my depth chart for the midfield:
One could certainly argue for Shelvey starting at the deeper role with Willock or Sean Longstaff alongside Almiron ahead, but I think I would still rather have someone who is dedicated to shielding the defense in Hayden (when Hayden is healthy). I have advocated for a 5-3-2 in the past rather than a 5-2-3 because I didn’t think Newcastle had the right players to play a two-man midfield. The five-back provides a solid base while not compromising in attack with progressive wing backs (Ritchie/Lewis and Murphy/Manquillo) and good attacking options in midfield. The striker pairing should allow players like Callum Wilson, Allan Saint-Maximin and Joelinton to compliment each other as opposed to being isolated.
Unfortunately for Matty Longstaff he doesn’t seem to be in Bruce’s plans at the moment. Matty likes being able to sit deeper and ping balls while being an active presser. The depth chart is crowded and it seems unlikely that he will have a meaningful impact on the rest of the season. It would be wise to groom him to step into Shelvey’s role as a deep playmaker, given that Shelvey is already 29. A loan spell may be on the horizon for him.
Jeff Hendrick will continue to fill gaps where needed whether that’s in midfield or on the outside or on the bench.
Newcastle’s relegation fight has forced Bruce to shuffle the deck, perhaps one too many times in the past. With the key players healthy and a decent run of form, the Magpies should be able to see out this campaign. The season still hangs in the balance though, which could be tipped either way by those in the center of the pitch.