Selling Aleksandar Mitrovic and allowing Dwight Gayle to depart on loan in the summer meant Rafael Benitez’s transfer business with regards his strikers was immediately under heavy scrutiny. Upgrading his attacking options has been a constant struggle for Benitez at Newcastle United, and the early signs this season are that struggle has continued.
Because Mitrovic and Gayle have been scoring freely for Fulham and West Brom respectively, the situation has escalated. Benitez has been always drawn up two lists of transfer targets to match whatever budget he gets and, more often than not, he has been forced to look at the cheapest possibilities. In fact, when it comes to strikers, he has not received anywhere near the backing he requires; Joselu, a £5million signing last summer from eventually relegated Stoke City, is an honest professional and a hard worker, but his limitations are obvious. He is the only player in the mould Benitez has demanded, a physical presence who can be the focal point to build from, that Newcastle have spent money on since returning to the Premier League just over a year ago.
Islam Slimani arrived on loan from Leicester City on the final day of the January transfer window. The Algerian was not the first choice, but a reactive signing after Daniel Sturridge had turned down a temporary move from Liverpool in favour of joining West Brom, but he did have pedigree. A thigh injury picked up days before his arrival robbed him of the chance to hit the ground running at St James’ Park, and by the time he was fully fit, the pressure was too great for him to integrate properly; a retrospective three-match ban meant that his season ended prematurely, too, and he left having made just four appearances with no goals to his name.
Surely that would be enough for Mike Ashley and the Newcastle board to realise that Benitez needed backing in the transfer window, particularly when it came to strikers; his great Liverpool side was led by the irrepressible Fernando Torres, while he brought Gonzalo Higuain to Napoli from Real Madrid. And both helped him bring relative success to those clubs. It is the least forgIrving position on the pitch when it comes to underinvestment, and Newcastle continue to pay that heavy price.
Benitez has been criticised for appearing not to learn his lesson from the Slimani debacle, bringing in Salomon Rondon in similar circumstances, on loan late in the window, and allowing Gayle to head the other way as part of the deal. But this is a prime example of why it is so impossible for any competent manager to work with Ashley. In order to make any signings at all, they have to be cheap, and because quality costs, there is always a gamble involved in finding it at such a low price. Benitez sacrificed more than he would have liked to sign Rondon, and his slow start which, like Slimani, has been down to injuries, has only magnified that. Gayle had a place at Newcastle and he would have kept it had the funds been there to sign Rondon for the £16.5million buyout clause in his contract at West Brom, but they weren’t, so Benitez had to get creative.
As for Mitrovic, his career on Tyneside had been over a long time before he secured his move In the summer; no matter how many goals he scores this season, he just didn’t suit the way Newcastle play, something he freely admits, and needed to leave. Finding his current form under Benitez would have been very tough.
One other piece of the attacking jigsaw that has gone under the radar somewhat is Yoshinori Muto, Newcastle’s biggest summer signing at £9.5million from German club Mainz. Japanese international Muto has been something of a slow burner; not only did his work permit take time to come through before the agreed deal could be confiirmed, but Benitez held him back, bringing him on late in games, which perhaps reduced his impact. He exploded onto the scene on Saturday evening at Old Trafford, though, and was the biggest positive on what was ultimately an excruciating evening against Manchester United.
Before Alexis Sanchez struck to complete their comeback to 3-2 from 2-0 down, Muto was proving the difference. He scored the Magpies‘ second goal, just two minutes after Kenedy broke the deadlock, and his movement and agility alongside Ayoze Perez showed that perhaps there is logic in stepping away from Benitez’s original principles.
Playing a big man up front, especially Joselu who lacks movement and instinct in front of goal, can slow Newcastle down even when Perez is with him. Muto thrived in taking turns to play as the number nine and ten at Old Trafford, offering a new dimension. His finish was accomplished, too, turning well in the box before smashing the ball past David De Gea, and the turning point in the game could be traced back to his substitution.
Newcastle face a pressure-cooker of a game against Brighton in just over a week’s time; Rondon may be fit, but the man guaranteed to start should be Yoshinori Muto, who may have shown that, from nowhere, he is the man to guide Newcastle from the darkness this season.
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