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Newcastle’s title hopes have been demolished in the last few weeks and although they still look assured of promotion, there is a feeling of disappointment on Tyneside right now.
The wheels came off Newcastle’s title train around the time Ciaran Clark went down with a knee ligament injury in the home loss to Fulham. Since his injury, Newcastle have played 6; won 2, drawn 2 and lost 2. In that same period, Brighton managed 5 wins and a single defeat, gaining 7 points on Newcastle and all but securing the title.
Many believe this is no coincidence. Clark has been Newcastle’s best defender this season, and there is no doubt. An unbelievable 9.7 clearances per game puts him up there with the best and shows that he has been the single reason on numerous occasions why Newcastle have managed to pick up points.
Aside from being of Premier League quality, the reason why Newcastle have missed Clark is because of the balance he brings to the team. All too often in the modern game, coaches pick centre-backs as though it is one universal position. It is not. Playing two centre-backs, as most teams do, means one player must be comfortable on the right side of the defence and one must be more comfortable on the left.
In Clark and Lascelles, Newcastle have that balance and it seemed to work well. After the Irishman’s injury though, both Grant Hanley and Chancel Mbemba have taken his place. With captain Lascelles wisely unwilling to move across, this left the new man in the team filling Clark’s shoes.
Hanley is right footed and although he is relatively versatile, he definitely feels happier on the right side of the defence. The same can be said for Mbemba, who before Lascelles’ ascent to first team duties, was Newcastle’s regular right-sided centre-half in the Premier League.
So, it seems everything is out of whack when Clark is unable to play. It is our opinion that players should be replaced like-for-like in a specific system and so, throwing Stuart Findlay into this position would have been ideal.
The £4.25m rated Irish man has even managed 3 goals and an assist in the Championship this season and so his attacking prowess has also been a miss. Providing his presence and making a real nuisance of himself during set pieces has been a winner for Newcastle this season and is something they can’t simply click their fingers to replicate. Had Clark and Hayden not been injured when they were, we would still be talking about Newcastle winning the title.