Rafa Benitez must solve the Matt Ritchie problem quickly
Newcastle United winger Matt Ritchie had an impressive start to life at St James Park, making an immediate impact. Now, the remarkable form that endeared him to fans is ebbing. Similarly, the Magpies’ Premier League season began on song, but has recently been out of Toon. Rafa Benitez's side isn't in any particular danger at the moment. Still, if the struggles continue, they could be drawn into a relegation battle.
Being 15th with 15 points after 15 matches might have some supporters reaching for scratch-off tickets, but the team would like to see the middle number rise while the first moves closer to '1'. It won't be easy. Results have been so unpredictable thus far, you could say the competition is stronger mid-table than in the top six.
In an increasingly dire situation, it becomes necessary for Newcastle to step up their game. Five defeats in six league matches has mainly been due to a weak front-line. Hence, it is a huge concern that Ritchie has gone into decline. The player should regain form. For the Magpies, however, time is becoming critical.
Four assists in three early Premier League appearances this season made him a fan favorite. Nothing in the interim meant he was suddenly deemed incompetent. Two more assists against West Brom rescued a point, and perhaps his reputation.
Both helpers came from set pieces. On the first, his corner found center-half Ciaran Clark rising up directly in front of goal. The Irishman hammered his header just under the bar. Ritchie's second assist was essentially a short corner. He slotted it past the one-man wall, for Jonny Evans to unwittingly bum-rush into his own goal.
Unfortunately, he couldn't establish renewed momentum against Chelsea on the weekend.
As well, Ritchie is yet to register a goal. The 28-year-old Scot puts in an immense work rate. Results matter, though, and Toon needs to gain a foothold to climb the table. His £10.8 million move from Bournemouth is an investment that should call for time for the player to settle. Yet, how much longer can Benitez afford to wait given the club's proximity to the danger zone?
Despite Ritchie’s inconsistent performance, Rafa has kept faith. During the pre-match presser at the Hawthorns, West Brom press conference, the Spaniard was asked just how concerned he was?
Good question. Good English. It’s his form ‘at the moment'. Which means you are not signing a player for ‘at the moment’. You are signing a player for three, four or five years.
To compound Benitez’s headache, he must also deal with Christian Atsu’s thigh injury. The winger is likely to be sidelined for a long time. Ritchie must contribute or depth at the position will become a serious issue for the Magpies. Perhaps the player needs to be rested to regain his previous form. With Atsu out, that's a dangerous decision to make. Benitez seems reluctant to replace him with Rolando Aarons or Jacob Murphy.
Ritchie is certainly the most experienced among the trio, but is that enough when he is out of form? Maybe yes, maybe no. it's a question only time can answer, yet time is something the side simply doesn't have. If Benitez does not resolve this issue quickly, the Magpies’ promising return to the Premier League may amount to nothing.