12152017

‘Enjoy it while it lasts’ – Jenas on where Newcastle’s season goes from here

Match of the Day

It is great to see my old club Newcastle in the top half of the Premier League table, but my message to their fans would be to enjoy it while it lasts.

Nobody knows what is going to happen with this Magpies team this season, so their supporters just have to enjoy the ride – and there are going to be a few ups and downs.

They have won three and lost three of their six games so far, which is decent for a promoted side, and I am sure many Newcastle fans will be absolutely delighted by the way they have started the campaign.

Newcastle fans<!–

Rafael Benitez steered Newcastle to promotion last season but fans feared he would leave in frustration over the club’s lack of transfer activity

But I try to look at performances rather than results at this stage because it gives you a good picture of what is to come – which was why it was interesting to be at the Amex Stadium on Sunday to see the way Rafael Benitez’s side were beaten by Brighton.

Now, I did not necessarily expect Newcastle to go there and win because the Seagulls are not a bad side, but the worrying thing was that they never looked like taking the three points.

And without putting too much of a dampener on their run of three straight wins before that defeat, their centre-half has scored their past two winners.

My question would be this: if Jamaal Lascelles is not banging them in from a corner, who is going to score Newcastle’s goals?

At the moment, I am not sure.

Benitez the perfect person to guide them through

Average age of Newcastle's starting XI in the PL in 2017-18 is 25 years and 200 days<!–

The average age of Newcastle’s starting XI in 2017-18 is the youngest in the Premier League, followed by Liverpool (25 years and 357 days) and Huddersfield (26 years and 35 days)

My main concerns about the Magpies now are the same as before the season started: the lack of squad depth and where their goals will come from.

They are also short of experience. The average age of their starting XIs this season is the youngest in the top flight and only four of their players have played more than 100 Premier League games – Mo Diame (183), Jack Colback (179), Jonjo Shelvey (144) and Ciaran Clark (140).

But there are some positives. Their team might be young but I don’t think they fear anything – and Lascelles, who is their captain at 23, is the perfect example of that.

Also, in Benitez they have got the perfect manager to guide them through their journey. He is the main reason why I think, ultimately, they will be OK.

The Spaniard did not get the signings he wanted over the summer, but he is working with the players he has got and giving them belief and togetherness – as well as organising them, of course.

There was no space for me to operate the way I wanted to

I know how Benitez works and, without pointing the finger or isolating people, he will be trying to drill things into each of his players that will improve them as a team.

When I think about Benitez’s Liverpool teams I played against, one of the things he was always good at was limiting space for me to work in.

I used to like making long runs forward, behind the defence, but if I started one and got away from my midfielder I would end up running into Xabi Alonso, who would just be sitting there waiting for me.

If that didn’t happen, I would find that the Liverpool defence was playing just a little bit deeper, so there was no space in behind for me to go into.

He would almost create mini-games for each of his players so they knew how to deal with the threat posed by the opposition – and it worked.

For me, it was weird and it always felt like there was no space anywhere for me to go and operate the way I wanted to.

Rafael Benitez during his time in charge of Liverpool<!–

Rafael Benitez managed Liverpool between 2004 and 2010, winning the Champions League in 2005 and the FA Cup in 2006

Liverpool a step too far for Magpies

What Benitez is brilliant at doing is simplifying instructions – he makes things as easy as possible for his players.

I just hope he does not get frustrated if the limitations of his Newcastle squad mean they are not capable of doing what he needs from them.

Benitez is up against his old team Liverpool on Sunday, and the sort of things he would have expected from the Reds sides he had are not realistic with the players he has got at Newcastle.

He will have the Magpies fully organised, but that is not always enough.

They will make life difficult for Liverpool at St James’ Park – like they did against Tottenham on the opening weekend until Jonjo Shelvey was sent off.

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Shelvey red card changed game – Benitez

But I think there are some games in the Premier League that will be one step too far for them this season, and this is one of them. Even if Benitez spots a problem I am not sure he can do much about it.

Against Brighton, Benitez noticed his left-back Chancel Mbemba needed some help to deal with the most dangerous Brighton attacks from Solly March and Anthony Knockaert, and pulled Christian Atsu back to support him.

It did not work and if the Seagulls had more quality they would have won by more than one goal.

The Reds’ attack is up there with Manchester City’s as the best in the league right now and I don’t think Newcastle will get away with it again.

If they play like they did in their defeat at the Amex Stadium, then I think Liverpool will wipe the floor with them.

Newcastle’s strength is as a defensive unit

Newcastle's starting XI v Brighton<!–

Newcastle’s starting XI v Brighton. Jonjo Shelvey replaced Isaac Hayden after 68 minutes

Newcastle also had problems at the other end of the pitch against Brighton – for much of the game they seemed to lack belief in the final third.

To have any kind of success, they need to be able to create more chances in open play. Their problem is that the more Benitez commits forward, the weaker his side become at the back.

Apart from Lascelles, I don’t think there is anyone else in their back-line you would be comfortable leaving in a one-on-one situation.

So, what Benitez has to do is surround them with people to protect them, which means taking away some of the attacking edge of Matt Ritchie or Ayoze Perez because he is asking them to join in and help defend as a team.

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‘Lascelles managing captain’s role well’

Benitez is never going to go out and play free-flowing football because he has built his career on his teams being defensively strong as a unit.

He will never move away from that, which is probably just as well for Newcastle in their situation – they do not have the players for that kind of approach anyway. So he needs to find some creativity without losing their shape and solidity in midfield.

Could Shelvey hold the key?

One way Benitez could address his problems in attack is by getting midfielder Shelvey in the right frame of mind and back into his starting line-up.

It is clear to me that Newcastle are a better and more creative side with Shelvey than they are without him.

The level of threat carried by the Magpies went through the roof the moment he came on as a 68th-minute substitute against Brighton.

Jonjo Shelvey<!–

Jonjo Shelvey created more chances and made more assists (eight) than any other Newcastle player in the Championship last season

Isaac Hayden is a decent footballer and very combative, and you can tell Mikel Merino likes getting on the ball and popping it around – but they are both a little bit safe in midfield. Shelvey tries things.

He is a threat from distance and a good crosser of the ball, the type of player that attackers will love to play with.

Shelvey has not started since he let his team down with that red card against Spurs, and it has probably done him some good that they have gone on and won some games without him.

It might have made him realise he has to take a good look at himself, and have the correct attitude when he plays, because otherwise he is going to stay on the bench.

With the qualities he has got, Newcastle need him in their team.

I think the kind of season they will now go on to have will depend on whether they can get him in form and get the best out of him. He is that important.

Jermaine Jenas was speaking to BBC Sport’s Chris Bevan.

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