Joe Willock recall, unleashing Miguel Almiron, a system switch & the Premier League survival battle assessed – Newcastle United Q&A with Liam Kennedy

Four games to go – the gap to the bottom three remains at nine points. Are Newcastle United safe in the Premier League or is too soon to get the metaphorical top flight deckchairs out? Not that it stopped Steve Bruce’s Magpies at the weekend.

Here our writer Liam Kennedy takes a look at the key questions facing Bruce and his players this week after their Arsenal debacle, as they line up a crack at high-flying, entertaining and in-form Leicester City on Friday night.

Have Newcastle United given up?

“The performance against Arsenal didn’t look good, did it?

Steve Bruce, Manager of Newcastle United reacts during the Premier League match between Newcastle United and Arsenal at St. James Park on May 02, 2021 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.Steve Bruce, Manager of Newcastle United reacts during the Premier League match between Newcastle United and Arsenal at St. James Park on May 02, 2021 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.
Steve Bruce, Manager of Newcastle United reacts during the Premier League match between Newcastle United and Arsenal at St. James Park on May 02, 2021 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England.

"It was basically a surrender against a team at half strength, with their attentions elsewhere. It stunk of a side putting their feet up.

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"And being brutally honest, United probably are safe – but they can’t be playing like it, not until things are mathematically sewn up. Even then, personal pride and a want to finish as high as possible should kick in.

"Another point will probably do it. A win definitely. But what they’ve done last weekend is leave the door ajar for those below them, Arsenal was the chance to as good as slam it shut.”

Should Newcastle stick with the 5-3-2 formation or switch it up?

"This viewpoint will no doubt be controversial with some Newcastle United fans – as I know how much the false nine formation wound so many up – but I’d go back to the 4-3-3.

"My reason for this is the lack of attacking intent shown at St James’ Park on Sunday. Even with Allan Saint-Maximin and Callum Wilson back in the side – the first time from the off since Southampton at the start of March – United looked like a blunt instrument. It was chalk and cheese from recent weeks.

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"The 4-3-3 is far from perfect – the lack of width is a major flaw, especially defensively – but the five at the back is equally as open despite the extra numbers in the defensive third.

"A switch of Miguel Almiron to a more advanced position will help United no end – and might just provide the desired spark at the King Power Stadium, much like the Paraguayan did back in 2019.”

Does Joe Willock come into the side?

"Of course Willock is now available for United – and I think looking at the balance of the midfield against Arsenal it would be daft not to bring him back into the starting XI.

"Willock is a player whose running with the ball at feet, ability to break the play up, energy and well-timed runs into the box are unparalleled in United’s ranks. United have not seen those late timely darts and finishes since Gini Wijnaldum and the ability to move across the floor to close down since Mo Diame.

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"Yes, Willock is a work-in-progress and can drift in and out of games, but his quality should see him named in the starting XI – it is a waste not to.

“Who does he come in for is another question that needs answered? For me, I’d bring him in for Jonjo Shelvey, but without a system tweak it will likely be Sean Longstaff. If there is a system switch them Willock can come into the side for Ciaran Clark or Paul Dummett, as a defender will inevitably be sacrificed at Leicester.”

Is Jonjo Shelvey a worthy skipper – and should Bruce consider changing who wears the armband?

“Any regular readers of my opinion pieces and matchday player ratings will know I, like many others out there, do not rate Shelvey’s contributions.

"Last season his performances were positive, more commanding and he added goals to his game. It maybe even lulled you into the thought process that Shelvey may well have, eventually, turned the corner at United. But no. This season has been more of the same.

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"For a player of Shelvey’s talents he needs to do more. Influence more. Impact more. And more often than not, to the untrained eye, it appears as if he chooses not to up those levels.

"He is no world beater and lacks a yard or five of pace and mobility but Shelvey can be better than he shows. And that’s the most disappointing part.

"For that reason, for me, he is not a worthy carrier of the armband – and not a player who leads by example, despite his considerable top flight experience.”

Do you think Newcastle United are safe on 36 points?

"No. They aren’t mathematically safe as Fulham and West Brom can still catch the Magpies, but using simple logic, you’d have to think the Cottagers and Sam Allardyce’s Baggies will have to produce some great escape magic to even get close to the 36-point mark this season.

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"It is a big ask for teams who have won a handful of games in 34 to go and win three or four of their last four games. It can be done, however. And until the red ‘R’ sits next to the duo on the Premier League standings, Newcastle need to be vigilant.

"You have to take into consideration that United’s next two are against two of the best in the division – Leicester City and Manchester City. A point from either of those would be a remarkable return. The most likely outcome is two losses.

"It is still very much in United’s hands however – and you’d much rather be us than them.”

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