Back in the summer of 2018, one of the shortest transfer windows we’ve had, more rumours were swirling that Matt Ritchie’s Newcastle days were numbered.
Fast forward ten months and the diminutive radge-packet has proven his doubters wrong again, myself included. A new role, a new thirst to succeed and new team-mates to slap the shit out of when they score.
On the right wing, Ritchie was limited and probably fairly predictable to defend against. During 2017/18, the Scotsman managed a flurry of assists in the opening five games, notching four. The two additional goals he set up away to West Brom in November would be the last assists he would record for the rest of the campaign.
There was an argument to suggest he struggled to be as penetrative as other Premier League wingers, and his lack of raw pace ensured he would almost always check back onto his trusty left foot to deliver in-swinging crosses towards the centre forward.
Tactically and mentally, it was difficult to criticise him, but physically he struggled and it wasn’t a rare sight to see him hauled off around the 60-70 minute mark, often seething.
His contribution was OK as an attacking entity, but Newcastle found themselves without possession often and needed to be a pacy threat on the break. Ritchie didn’t fit this mould, and transfer gossip of him being sold to freshly relegated Stoke seemed to have substance.
The man earmarked to replace him was unsurprisingly Andros Townsend, who Rafa was incredibly interested in, and had gone out of his way to persuade to stay when Newcastle were relegated three years ago. Townsend was pacy, and was also unpredictable given he could cut inside or head down to the by-line. His chance creation and crossing was also very notable which understandably interested Rafa.
I would’ve been delighted with this switch at the time.
But Ritchie ended up staying, and Townsend stayed at Palace. And realistically, in a more logical world, the owner of Newcastle United would see the value in having both options in the squad, but then logic isn’t usually a word associated with Mike Ashley.
But it was the squad’s abundance of centre-backs which has ultimately saved Matt Ritchie’s Newcastle career.
Benítez switched to a five-man defence on the third game of the new seasons against Chelsea to help protect Dubravka from Hazard et al., and while Chelsea got lucky with a dubious penalty and Yedlin own goal, Rafa saw enough to think this new shape was worth developing.
But after naming the same formation the following week away to Man City, it wouldn’t be seen again until late November when Ritchie was first named as a left wing-back.
I was at that game at Turf Moor and while the team sheet seemed a bit of a head scratcher at first, Ritchie was starting in a role where his tenacity and tactical intelligence could have far more impact, and he could play with space ahead of him.
Newcastle were 2-1 victors that night, with Ritchie bagging only his second assist of the season, but he has only gone from strength to strength since.
Seven of the No.11’s eight Premier League assists have come as a left wing back and it is a creative tally he didn’t even manage in the longer, and lower quality Championship campaign. It is the highest Premier League assist return for a Newcastle player since Joey Barton’s nine back in 2010/11.
Paul Dummett is a better fit as a left-sided centre back given his relative lack of mobility, and Ritchie has brushed off competition from Javier Manquillo, Kenedy and the oft-forgotten Antonio Barreca.
Facing up to left backs and playing as a right winger for most of his career, gives the Scot unique insight into that area of the field, which he has utilised to his advantage as one of the most unexpectedly adaptable players we’ve seen this year.
Given the owner’s reluctance to keep ageing players on the books, an almost-thirty year old Ritchie would have been shipped out this summer, without question. But even though Newcastle may well look to full-back reinforcements for both sides of the pitch this close season, Matt Ritchie remains the best performing and most reliable wing-back in the squad.
His determination to succeed and his fierce expectancy of all those around him to fight with the same intensity keeps the dressing room in check. There is simply no place for halfheartedness with a snarling Ritchie all up in your grill.
He leads by example, wears his heart on his sleeve and epitomises what it means to be a Rafa Benítez player for Newcastle in 2019.
The Spaniard is a genius when it comes to eking every last drop of potential out of his players, and Ritchie is a perfect example of this. He is his loyal soldier, ready to put his body on the line, and most importantly, Rafa trusts him implicitly.
‘There are discussions at the moment, hopefully we can get them resolved.
‘This is a massive football club, I’m really enjoying playing for so until I’m told my services are no longer required, I’m fighting for my life as I do every week to perform. Who knows what the future holds but until I’m told my services are no longer required, I’ll do everything for the football club.’
The player is clearly desperate to stay beyond his current contract which expires in 2021, and for everyone’s sake, let’s hope he does.
I’m delighted to admit just how wrong I was about Ritchie and I hope to see him in a black and white shirt for as long as his body allows.
Just go easy on those celebrations, Matt, yeah?…
Adam Widdrington (@AddingRandomWit)