Rafa Benitez’s decision to bring in a new starting goalkeeper, Matt Sels, in the only position Newcastle seemed to have more than adequate cover raised eyebrows in the summer especially when his new chosen one has started the season in shaky, unconvincing fashion.
Benitez, who has ‘rotated’ out-field players ruthlessly, has been quick to defend Sels following post-game questioning by journalists and criticism by fans saying:
“Normally (with) the keeper you have to give him more confidence because you cannot change keeper every week. You can change a full-back, you can change a winger, you can change a striker – it depends on the other players around. But the keeper has an influence on the team and he has to have confidence so its important to give him confidence.”
Yet if the goalkeeping position is such an important role then surely the most confident and best keeper should start and right now, that is 25 year-old relative Championship veteran Karl Darlow.
Tim Krul, who started last season as The Magpies’ no. 1 has been loaned to Ajax for a year following his serious knee injury playing for Holland last season, purportedly because of club concerns about his fitness but it is rumoured he did not want to spend a season in The Championship.
Republic of Ireland international Robbie Elliot took over from Krul following that injury and impressed between the sticks, especially memorable at Bournemouth in a superlative display yet he himself suffered the curse of Newcastle keepers and was himself injured on international duty prior to The Euros.
Karl Darlow, a signing from Notts Forest, who after a disastrous full Newcastle debut at WBA in December spilling the game’s only goal into his own net, ended the season with the goalkeeper’s jersey and some Man of the Match performances and game-saving heroics like this Yohan Cabaye penalty save versus Crystal Palace should be no. 1.
Considering Newcastle also have the extremely highly-rated England U19 goalkeeper Freddie Woodman on their books plus Krul, Elliot and Darlow, a goalkeeper was a strange positional choice for Rafa’s first signing.
The Champions League-winning manager explained in an interview on BBC Newcastle with Mick Lowes that his thinking was that Krul and Elliot were both injured and to start the season with just two fit goalkeepers – Darlow and Woodman, one very young – was irresponsible, hence Selz’s arrival.
Fair enough especially considering Newcastle have had to thrust young keepers like Jak Alnwick into the St. James’ Park deep end in the past who, despite initial heroics against Chelsea and Diego Costa, whom he memorably punched, left the club soon after.
Yet for Benitez to back Sels as his no. 1 choice seemingly before training and the season proper began was a premature choice, a view given weight by the mistake the Belgian goalkeeper made in a pre-season friendly at Doncaster trying to chip a striker without success and giving away a penalty in the process.
Sels may well be the best keeper in Belgium yet the Jupiler Pro League is no real standard to judge from, it certainly doesn’t compare with The Premier League and this season’s cash-rich SKY Bey Championship may well be a step up from it which Sels has had to adapt to.
Add to that the pressure of playing in front of 50,000 people at St. James’ Park and the fervent Geordie hordes on the road compared to performing in the 20,000-capacity Ghelamco Arena and Sels may well still be adjusting to the responsibility of playing at what is a massive football club and in a different country.
The Karl Darlow – Jamaal Lascelles Understanding Is Key
As well as being at home in English football, the key advantage Darlow has over Sels and his other rivals for the goalkeeping shirt, Elliot when he is back and Woodman, is the playing history and friendship he shares with current Newcastle Captain Jamaal Lascelles.
Both players are products of the highly-regarded Nigel Doughty Academy at Notts Forest which has produced three other ex-Newcastle players in recent years – Marlon Harewood, James Perch and Jermaine Jenas – as well as current Premier League Champion Wes Morgan.
From there, Darlow and Lascelles graduated to the Forest first team where they played two full seasons together under bosses like Stuart Pearce, a coach who has since disparaged their reputation after they both signed for Newcastle behind his back in the summer of 2014.
Yet both their performances in the relegation run-in last season contradicted Pearce’s opinion and Newcastle may not have been in the predicament they found themselves in had more trust been placed in players chased by the likes of Man U, Liverpool and Arsenal before Newcastle snapped them up.
That level of shared experience with Forest on and off the pitch and the move to Newcastle together gives the pair a unique bond and understanding of each other’s game that can only be good if utilised in a black and white (and green) shirt for The Magpies aiding defensive communication and confidence.
Darlow Projects Calm and Reassurance and Commands His Box
While there may not be a lot to choose from between Sels and Darlow’s shot-stopping ability, Darlow is a man of greater stature and projects a confidence and reliability that Sels does not yet possess in English football.
Newcastle fans and watchers are not yet convinced by a goalkeeper who flaps at crosses and doesn’t seem to dominate his defense and defensive area.
Benitez’s other major signings – Dwight Gayle, Matt Ritchie and Mo Diame – were all specifically signed for their Championship know-how and experience and are already proving to be real assets in the second tier.
It may well come with time with Sels but with a ready-made, established, Championship experienced goalkeeping and central defender partnership in the Newcastle ranks, the recall of Darlow who looked the part on Tuesday against Cheltenham behind Captain Lascelles could settle a few early-season nerves on Tyneside.