Newcastle United fans are used to managing expectations, but their manager, Rafael Benitez certainly isn’t. Not to this level, anyway. It should never be underestimated how surprising it is to see a Champions League-winning manager, somebody who has worked with some of the best players and clubs in the world, battling on even though he knows avoiding relegation is probably the best he can achieve this season.
Sitting just two points above the drop zone with injuries piling up, Newcastle travel to Chelsea on Saturday evening. Benitez can only look on in envy at the squad his opposite number, Maurizio Sarri, has at his disposal, but he continues to get on with his job.
The Spaniard has a self-imposed embargo on his head when it comes to discussing transfers, so most fans are being left in the dark. The inference, though, is that nothing is close to happening, and judging by the previous actions of Newcastle owner Mike Ashley, that does seem about right.
The Magpies are particularly short on central midfielders for the game at Stamford Bridge; given that most games at the top level hinge on the battle in the centre of the park, that is particularly bad news.
Ki Sung-Yueng, who has been a rare bright and creative spark this season, is away on international duty with South Korea, while Mohamed Diame and Jonjo Shelvey are both facing a race against time to be fit.
As he often does in games against the top six, Benitez will look to sit tight and defend deep, which could mean Diame’s absence is felt more than Shelvey’s. Prior to the defeat to Manchester United on January 2nd, the Senegalese had made 127 tackles this season, more than any other player in the league.
Other than out wide, where Eden Hazard will look to cause problems as he so often does against Newcastle, Chelsea are probably strongest in midfield. Jorginho, the Brazilian-born Italy international signed in the summer from Napoli, sets Sarri’s high intensity approach in motion as a single pivot flanked by N’Golo Kante and one other player, often Ross Barkley or Mateo Kovacic. As the graphic below shows, Jorginho has been vital when it comes to playing the ball forward quickly, scoring nearly 16,000 attacking points from the base of midfield this season.
Slightly altering Kante’s role means Chelsea can be left exposed on the counter attack if they are facing a high press. Jorginho doesn’t bring the same discipline to the deepest variant of the position as the Frenchman.
Tottenham got a lot of joy by doing this in the 3-0 win over the Blues at Wembley last month, but Newcastle are not likely to be adventurous enough in their current state. Salomon Rondon and Ayoze Perez, who will be their prime attacking threat, are likely to be cut off with no Shelvey or Ki to feed them forward passes.
The organised and efficient system Benitez will put in place will be compromised without Diame. A likely midfield pair of Isaac Hayden, who has made no secret of his desire to depart the club in January, and youngster Sean Longstaff will hardly fill supporters, or Benitez for that matter, with the necessary confidence that they can get a result on Saturday.
Diame is the key presser in the middle for Newcastle and these graphics below show exactly why Diame will be missed if he isn’t fit, and why Hayden may not be the man to replace him. The latter’s positional sense is sorely lacking, while Diame is always leading the charge to win the ball back.
No gaps between defence and midfield
It is not hard to see who the biggest threat for Chelsea will be going forward. Eden Hazard has been very impressive this season and he has a superb track record against Newcastle, with seven goals in total and three in the last two meetings.
If the Magpies want to keep him quiet, they will need to keep the gaps between defence and midfield to a minimum. The Belgian doesn’t always make straight penetrative runs, instead preferring to cut inside from the left. That is where he is most dangerous.
Keep both wings tightly closed
Though DeAndre Yedlin will likely have his hands full on the right hand side of Newcastle’s defence marking Hazard, whoever is playing at left-back could be in for a tough evening, too. With Kenedy on loan from Chelsea and ineligible, and Paul Dummett also a doubt, Ciaran Clark will likely be drafted into the side.
He could come up against Callum Hudson-Odoi, one of the brightest talents in English football today. Hudson-Odoi has been heavily linked with Bayern Munich, and it is easy to see why looking at his attacking actions this season. He may have only played 85 minutes of Premier League football in 2018/19, but he is itching for more and, like Hazard, is not afraid to cut inside to unlock defences.
Get Christian Atsu on the ball
It wasn’t long ago that Christian Atsu was an outcast under Benitez but the lack of options has seen the Ghanaian former Chelsea winger given an opportunity. Newcastle have reverted to playing three at the back for much of their recent run, meaning Atsu has been used as more of an inverted winger. He was the best player against Manchester United, missing the best three chances, and will look to get involved here.