A glance at the Premier League form table is enough to provoke a double-take. In fourth place, tucked between five of the country’s current top six teams, are Newcastle United.
Starting with a surprise victory over Manchester City at St James’ Park, Newcastle have won three of their last five games. Prior to those impressive results, the Magpies beat Cardiff City 3-0 to ease relegation fears induced by winning just one league game in nine.
Dreading the drop is no longer on the agenda at Newcastle. Instead, Rafael Benitez’s side are looking up the table with hopes of a top-half finish looking more realistic by the game.
But how has Benitez engineered such an impressive turnaround? And what are the main factors behind Newcastle’s climb up the form table? Here are five thoughts.
1. Longstaff’s controlling midfield displays
Sean Longstaff has started in each of Newcastle’s last seven Premier League games, completing 90 minutes in all but one, having been substituted after 85 minutes in the 2-0 home win over Burnley on Monday night.
His substitution provided the Newcastle fans with the opportunity to give Longstaff a standing ovation, letting the 21-year-old know just how much his performances are being admired. Indeed, he was excellent against Burnley, scoring the second goal, and has played a key role in his side’s recent transformation.
Since breaking into the team, Longstaff, who spent last season on loan at League One side Blackpool, has made more successful passes per 90 league minutes (31.25) than any other Newcastle midfielder. He covers plenty of ground, makes simple yet productive passes with accuracy and has been likened to another famous midfielder from the North East, Michael Carrick.
Longstaff is currently keeping the likes of Ki Sung-Yueng, Mohamed Diame and Jonjo Shelvey out of the team, forming an effective partnership with Isaac Hayden, who is also due some praise after turning his Newcastle career around.
2. Almiron offering an outlet
The January arrival of Miguel Almiron, marking the first time the club has broken its transfer record since signing Michael Owen in 2005, has undeniably been a huge boost for Newcastle on the pitch.
Since he made his debut against Wolves last month, no Newcastle player has created more chances per 90 league minutes than Almiron (4.53). His first touch and dribbling ability have been praised by onlookers, and he has plenty of pace to beat an opponent whenever possible.
That agility has also served Newcastle well when Almiron isn’t on the ball. His runs in-behind the opposition defence have proved incredibly useful. Not only does he offer an outlet for deeper players to pass to, but the 25-year-old also opens up space for his attacking teammates, preoccupying defenders so the likes of Ayoze Perez and Salomon Rondon have more room to operate in central areas.
Almiron is yet to score but came incredibly close on his home debut against Newcastle, latching onto a through ball and chipping the goalkeeper only to see his dink come back off the post. It feels like only a matter of time until the Paraguayan makes the net ripple.
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3. Mood among fans much improved after January investment
Almiron’s arrival has not just improved the team. He has improved the already incredibly supportive atmosphere at St James’ Park.
It can be said with certainty that the Newcastle fans will never be on board with current ownership. As far as the vast majority of supporters are concerned, the sooner Mike Ashley sells the club the better; they have been waiting long enough.
In the meantime, the January investment has certainly done the general morale around St James’ Park a whole lot of good. The current contentment might only be temporary, with Benitez’s contract expiring at the end of the season and Ashley seemingly no closer to finding a buyer. But at least the focus on the club is positive rather than negative for now, a factor that is clearly benefiting the players on the pitch.
4. Rondon a constant presence up front
Salomón Rondón has now been directly involved in 10+ Premier League goals in each of his four campaigns:
2015/16: 9 goals, 2 assists
2016/17: 8 goals, 2 assists
2017/18: 7 goals, 3 assists
2018/19: 7 goals, 3 assists
A repeat of last season’s tally. pic.twitter.com/QQDWF8FA3N
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Alan Shearer’s brilliance and hero status at St James’ Park has made things difficult for every striker who has followed in his footsteps by joining Newcastle. The Magpies have struggled to find a consistent centre forward in recent seasons, particularly under Benitez’s management.
Salomon Rondon has changed that situation, particularly over the last few weeks. He has scored or provided an assist in three of Newcastle’s last four league victories, which is indicative of his importance to the team and serves as confirmation he has fully settled in the North East.
The Venezuelan’s work ethic and intelligence make him the ideal central presence for Newcastle. He is able to provide a goal threat of his own while also bringing others into play. What’s more, his form gives Benitez one fewer selection headache – a rare case of having a lack of other suitable options being a good thing, so long as Rondon stays fit.
In the 1-0 defeat at Tottenham – the only game in which Newcastle have drawn a blank in their last seven league outings – Rondon was unlucky not to find the net, hitting the woodwork and almost earning his side at least a point. Currently, on seven league goals, he’ll be hoping to hit double figures in the coming weeks.
5. Back three helping defensively and going forward
It is often said switching to a back three is a defensive tactic; bringing in a third centre-back and thus losing an attacker adds more of a solid base to any team. But a back three usually means full-backs become wing-backs, adding another attacking element.
Benitez has blended the defensive and offensive attributes of a back three effectively. His full-backs, including Matt Ritchie in a new position on the left, often remain deep to create a back five, but they are also given permission to roam forward to provide width.
On top of that, the wide centre-backs Fabian Schar and Florian Lejeune are able to bring the ball out from the back and start attacks from deep with their long ball ability. Lejeune completed 21 of his 24 attempted long balls against Huddersfield Town recently, while Schar has scored excellent goals from open play against Cardiff and Burnley.
Jamaal Lascelles’ presence in the middle of the centre-backs gives Schar and Lejeune more freedom, meaning Benitez’s fresh approach is helping Newcastle as much going forward as it is defensively.