Newcastle’s pre-season campaign – what we’ve learnt so far

Newcastle manager Rafael Benitez.
Newcastle manager Rafael Benitez.

Two wins. A draw. And a loss.

That’s where we are in pre-season ahead of tomorrow night’s game against Wolfsburg.

Newcastle United have just two friendlies left before the club’s August 13 season-opener against Tottenham Hotspur.

What has Rafa Benitez learnt over the past fortnight?

Thirty players have featured in the four pre-season games so far. Some of those players are not in Benitez’s plans.

The minutes played by them against Heart of Midlothian, Bradford City, Preston North End and Mainz 05 only tell us so much.

Benitez, we know, likes to get his players in early. And Florian Lejeune is a case in point.

Lejeune arrived on the eve of pre-season training, and consequently United’s manager has been able to play him a lot.

Lejeune has had 261 minutes on the pitch so far.

If only more deals could have been done earlier.

Lejeune needs to quickly adjust to the physicality and intensity of English football.

So too will midfielder Mikel Merino, who came off the bench in Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to Mainz.

Lejeune’s early arrival has given him an advantage.

The 26-year-old – who had a season at Manchester City but never played a game for the club – has hardly put a foot wrong.

Known as a no-nonsense defender, he’s blocked, tackled and headed his way through the club’s four games.

Lejeune can also pick a pass, as we saw against Bradford at Valley Parade last week.

So it’s so far, so good for the former France Under-21 international.

Chancel Mbemba – who could yet leave United this summer – has also played a lot of football so far this pre-season, but that’s in part down to the injury which has sidelined captain Jamaal Lascelles for the past fortnight.

Lascelles is set to return to training this week.

Interestingly, Siem de Jong has played a lot of minutes – 226 in total – this pre-season.

The forward – who spent last season on loan at PSV Eindhoven – faces an uncertain future at Newcastle.

Has Benitez been putting him in the shop window? Or has he been seriously assessing whether he can have a role to play this season?

The 28-year-old has three more years on his contract at Newcastle and a sale is unlikely given his wages.

PSV, for one, wouldn’t be able to afford him.

So either he is loaned out again by Benitez – or he is kept at St James’s Park for the coming season.

We’ve seen glimpses of what de Jong can do.

Like midfielder Jonjo Shelvey, de Jong can play a telling pass in the final third of the pitch.

But can he handle the rigours of Premier League football? That’s maybe the question Benitez has been trying to answer in the first four games.

De Jong knows he must prove he can handle English football, having seen his first two seasons at the club decimated by a series of injuries.

Could he have a role to play off the bench late in a tight game when one pass could open a team up?

Benitez will want to give Merino as many minutes as possible over the next two games – United conclude their pre-season campaign with a home game against Hellas Verona on Sunday – so he can quickly get used to his team-mates.

Javier Manquillo, signed from Atletico Madrid, also needs to be ready for the Tottenham game.

DeAndre Yedlin limped out of the Mainz fixture with a hamstring problem – and right-back Manquillo – who spent last season on loan at Sunderland – could start the season in the team.

Shelvey, meanwhile, has ticked over nicely in pre-season. The 25-year-old looks fit and ready for the new season.

Shelvey was outstanding for Newcastle at Valley Parade, where Bradford were beaten 4-0.

No home player got close to him and he was able to dictate the game.

United’s movement and passing was excellent.

However, Shelvey knows he won’t get anywhere near that much time and space in the Premier League.

As for goal, Rob Elliot looks a safe bet to start the season between the posts, though Benitez is looking to sign another goalkeeper.

Elliot’s played more football than Karl Darlow, who was outstanding for United in the Championship.

Darlow could yet leave this summer, while Freddie Woodman – who has played in all four games – is likely to be loaned out for some or all of the season.

As it stands, the teamsheet that Benitez hands in before for the Tottenham game won’t be radically different to the ones he was handing in late last season.

It would be a surprise if the likes of Dwight Gayle, Paul Dummett, Isaac Hayden and Matt Ritchie didn’t start.

Winger Ritchie missed the first two friendly games on the back of a summer groin operation, but he looked a fit as anyone against Bradford.

But de Jong and others, notably winger Rolando Aarons, have given Benitez something to think about between now and next weekend.

Benitez still has more thinking time.

And the final two pre-season games should give us a clearer indication of that thinking as the Tottenham game draws ever closer.