Ahead of Saturday's visit of Newcastle United, we got the lowdown on the 19th-placed Magpies from Newcastle Chronicle reporter Chris Waugh.
What’s the mood like at the moment, after last week’s 3-2 defeat at Norwich?
Last weekend’s defeat has put Tyneside under a bit of gloom. It was a huge game. They went into it with a lot of hope, particularly with Rafa Benítez’s arrival and there was a lot of positivity around the club, despite their position. But Saturday was a bit deflating, particularly with the manner of the defeat in the end, to haul themselves back in the game twice and then to concede that goal in the 93rd minute. The mood’s very gloomy on Tyneside at the moment, but not all hope is lost. There’s still a belief if they can get a result at St Mary’s this weekend that things could turn around, but certainly it’s become more and more desperate and a result is really necessary this weekend.
What sort of an impact has Rafa Benítez had so far?
From a psychological point of view, for the fans, he made a huge difference, particularly in the first couple of weeks here. He gave the club a real lift, because under Steve McClaren it had gone very stale and the performances on the pitch had really deteriorated. The fans needed that lift and they did get it. The performance at Leicester was slightly improved – defensively they were a lot better – then against Sunderland they struggled for long periods, but got a draw to stop the rot against their local rivals, having lost six in a row before that. His arrival has lifted everyone, but the fact results haven’t taken an upturn means that optimism is starting to wane.
Just how important is this game for Newcastle?
It’s absolutely huge. Newcastle are six points shy of safety, but it’s almost seven because their goal difference is so bad. There’s only seven games left for them, so every week is crucial. They’re going to a ground where they haven’t traditionally done well, but it’s crucial they do well there this weekend. One point minimum, but three points are really needed.
What is the team’s style of play and how are they approaching games?
Towards the end of McClaren’s tenure he reverted back to a 4-2-3-1 formation almost, and that’s the formation Benítez has used. He’s opted for experience. On Saturday I very much expect [Aleksandar] Mitrović to be restored to the starting line-up. Usually Mitrović up top with [Georginio] Wijnaldum just in behind him. Essentially they try to pass it around a lot, but are not overly productive in getting the ball forward too much. [Jonjo] Shelvey’s the key player in the team, he’s the playmaker. He likes to fizz the ball further forward and Newcastle try to work out space and then use [Moussa] Sissoko and [Andros] Townsend to counter-attack.
Who are the team’s key players?
Mitrović would be the real key man at the moment. He’s popped up with three goals in his last two games after going through a bit of a lean spell. He’s the one hope that Newcastle are really pinning everything on at the moment, because he looks dangerous, he looks like he could score and when they get the ball in the box to him he is a real handful. If you don’t play to his strengths he’ll struggle, but if you get crosses in the box he can nick a goal, and with their porous defence they certainly need someone putting the ball in the back of the net at the minute.
What kind of a game are you expecting?
From a Newcastle point of view, I’m expecting a nervy opening ten or 15 minutes. They haven’t started games well recently. I think they’ll want to grow into the game and Benítez will be keen for them to be tight to begin with. I think they’ll try and take the game to Southampton, but not be gung ho. I think that if they can survive the first ten, 15 minutes they really will grow in confidence and could get something.