There were a few key lessons learnt as Newcastle United faced Hull City in a friendly match on Tuesday night, but not many of them were positive. Most alarming, but not surprising, were Rafa Benitez’s comments on the transfer situation; the squad, which was missing a number of first team regulars at the KCOM Stadium, is “not good enough”, according to the manager, and he has called on Lee Charnley, the Managoing Director, to offer more clarity on the situation.
All this came after a 2-2 draw on Humberside; as always in pre-season, everybody was keen to stress the main focus was on fitness rather than quality, but it was clear Benitez is right. With no Dwight Gayle or Florian Lejeune, through injury, or Kenedy, for family reasons, in the squad, there were opportunities for the likes of academy graduates Sean Longstaff and Callum Roberts to shine. Yet, the result was a flat, laboured performance of a team that clearly lacks strength in depth, which is far from what Benitez wanted both at this point of his reign and more specifically this transfer window.
Jonjo Shelvey was, unsurprisingly, at the heart of everything good for Newcastle, but once he and Matt Ritchie began to run out of steam in the second half, Hull took the initiative. Joselu’s first half strike, from Shelvey’s pass, gave the Magpies the lead, but Todd Kane and Evandro turned the game on its head before substitute Ayoze Perez rescued Benitez’s side. Since he spoke at full time, news has emerged that Deportivo la Coruña’s Swiss defender Fabian Schär is due on Tyneside for a medical after his £3million release clause was activated. Though he impressed at the World Cup and undoubtedly has quality, the fact he is replacing Chancel Mbemba, who signed for FC Porto this week, at around half the price gives off the impression that, despite Benitez wanting more control over deals as well as more financial backing, they must fit the board’s criteria as a profit-maker before being sanctioned.
Less than three weeks remain of the transfer window, and Newcastle are still yet to replace players who have been sold, let alone strengthen the squad. Benitez spoke at length last season about needing a new striker even before Aleksandar Mitrovic headed to Fulham for a very successful loan spell in January, but as the newly-promoted Premier League side look to make the move permanent, Newcastle are yet to add another frontman, meaning it is incredibly unlikely that they will be any better off in terms of numbers up front this season, whether Mitrovic, who is due back in training this week ahead of the next stop on the pre-season tour in Portugal, stays or not. Salomon Rondon remains a target, but Gayle’s future is far from set in stone.
It appears that Perez is going to have a crucial role to play this season, with another of Benitez’s preferred positions to strengthen, number 10, still left untouched. The Spaniard has been a divisive figure for many fans during his four-year spell at Newcastle; some believe he has not fulfilled his potential. But after scoring vital goals against Huddersfield Town, Leicester City, Chelsea and Arsenal to help secure a top-half finish last term, Perez has stated he is ready to help in any way he can, be it up front or in his usual deeper role, after an impressive run out on Tuesday..
”I feel comfortable in both positions, we are doing really well and I really good in either number ten or number 9. Whatever the boss needs, I’ll be ready,” he said.
“I was happy to get back to my habits, scoring goals, but the most important thing was fitness, to keep improving and make sure we don’t make any mistakes.
”I was happy to get 45 minutes and we all have to play to get ready for the season.”
But the dark clouds persist with regards to Benitez’s future; contract negotiations are at an impasse and it doesn’t seem like the backing he wants is forthcoming anytime soon. Perez, while also stating his own personal happiness amid rumours of a return to Spain, and his teammate Mohamed Diame have both called on Mike Ashley to realise what he has in Benitez.
“He’s been really important since he joined us, not only for this season,” Perez continued.
”The club is moving forward and doing better things since he signed and we need to keep him. That’s really important.
“When you have a top manager in your club, you have to keep him happy, give him what he needs and let him work. That is my opinion.”
”I am still living my dream of playing in the Premier League and I don’t think now is the time to move to another country. I’m really happy at this big club.
Diame, meanwhile, added: “Everyone knows how important he (Benitez) is, everyone wants him to stay. He’s doing a good job, like he did last year, and we know he is focussed on it.”
It could scarcely be any clearer that Benitez is holding everything together at Newcastle, which makes the poor communication and treatment towards him from above all the more mystifying. Games against Braga and Porto are to come before a home clash with German side Augsburg and then the arrival of Tottenham to start the league campaign on August 11. In between now and then, though, the transfer window shuts, and everybody, from the fans to the players, understands how crucial the next few weeks will be. The sooner the men who matter most work it out, the better.
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