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Newcastle United boss Rafael Benítez was never under any illusions about the size of the task he was facing last summer.

Many might have expected the Championship winners to stroll into the middle of the Premier League pack – especially after climbing as high as fifth after three consecutive victories in September.

But reality has bitten for the Magpies, who have not put together consecutive wins since and find themselves two points and as many places clear of the drop zone with nine games remaining.

So with the relegation battle hotting up, Football Whispers asks what Newcastle need to do in order to avoid an immediate return to the Championship.

Give Dwight Gayle a run in the side

Benítez has not been happy with his options at the sharp end since winning promotion. Dwight Gayle, after bagging 23 times in 26 starts last season, was deemed not good enough to spearhead Newcastle's attack in the Premier League and almost joined Fulham at the end of the summer window.

The move fell through but it was evident Benítez did not trust the former Crystal Palace forward and made £5million bargain-bin signing Joselu his first choice to lead the line.

But the Spaniard has been as poor as his time at Stoke City suggested he might be and, as a team, Newcastle are under-performing miserably against their xG (expected goals) value.

The Magpies should have scored 33.81 goals this term, instead they've bothered the back of the net just 27 times – a difference of almost seven goals. Only Crystal Palace, who have registered 13.66 goals fewer than their xG score suggests, are worse in front of goal.

Gayle, who struck twice against Bournemouth in the recent 2-2 draw, has never been prolific. Despite his limited opportunities he is the Magpies' top scorer with five goals from 1,377 minute of action – equating to a goal every 277 minutes, or every three games.

He has the pace to trouble teams – something Joselu lacks – and in a Newcastle side set up to sit deep and hit sides on the counter that is invaluable. It may be time for Benítez to swallow his pride.

Get Mikel Merino back to his best

Signed on loan from Borussia Dortmund at the start of the campaign, Mikel Merino was the latest example of Benítez extracting value from the European market after the success of Florian Lejeune.

In October Merino signed a five-year deal on Tyneside after hitting the requisite number of games to make the move permanent.

However, injury has disrupted his season and Saturday's 2-0 defeat at Liverpool was just Merino's third Premier League outing since the turn of the year. The midfielder admitted afterwards to being tired and getting him back to his best is of utmost importance.

Despite making just 15 top-flight appearances, Merino has averaged 3.8 tackles per 90 minutes this season – more than any of his team-mates. He also comes out on top for interceptions (2.3 per 90) and passes (53.3).

Start to control the ball

Much has been made of the way the Magpies have set up this season. Benítez, the ultimate pragmatist, has come under fire for his perceived negative tactics – most notably in defeat at home to Manchester City earlier in the season.

“He makes this Newcastle tactic look embarrassing. It has to change,” Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville said afterwards.

“There’s defending, and there’s showing absolutely no ambition whatsoever. If it were a boxing match, the referee would have stopped it. Hopefully it will spark them into life, to give them something to watch.”

But the former Real Madrid and Liverpool boss is all too aware of his side's limitations and has focused on ensuring his team are not taken apart by the division's leading lights, potentially damaging their goal difference.

However, one tact which might improve their fortunes is holding onto the ball more – especially at home. The Magpies have averaged just 43.8 per cent possession at St James' Park, completing just 71.7 per cent of their passes.

They are second bottom of the entire Premier League for those metrics, with only Championship-bound West Bromwich Albion posting worse numbers.

It's not like Newcastle don't have players to employ a more possession-heavy style of play either. Merino – as proven by the number of passes he averages per 90 – and Jonjo Shelvey are both comfortable on the ball.

Place more trust in Shelvey

The midfielder has been in and out of the side this season with Benítez unimpressed by the England international's lack of discipline. There has never been any question over the 26-year-old technical ability, but his career has drifted for a reason.

That reason, as if it wasn't already abundantly clear, was flagged up on the opening weekend of the season when Shelvey was issued a straight red card for stamping on Tottenham midfielder Dele Alli.

That petulant outburst earned him a three-match ban. In the event he sat out double that with a seething Benítez sidelining the former Liverpool player for six games.

“It was a moment of madness,” Shelvey said. “I couldn’t tell you to this day what I was doing. It was an error and that I’ve apologised for,” he told NUFC TV.

Lesson clearly not learnt, he picked up a two-game suspension after being sent off in the final minute of a 1-0 home defeat by Everton in December.

However, if Shelvey can ensure he remains available he will be imperative to Newcastle's survival bid. None of the Magpies' other central midfield options possess the natural talent Shelvey does. It's why his former manager at Anfield, Brendan Rodgers, claimed on the fly-on-the-wall documentary Being: Liverpool, he had ‘all the tools'.

Shelvey has the vision, confidence and technical ability to lift his head, spot and execute a pass his team-mates can only dream of.

With 1.5 key passes per 90, Matt Ritchie (1.8) is the only United regular ahead of Shelvey. Although Aleksandr Mitrović (3) and Jesús Gamez (3.7) post better numbers the former is on loan at Fulham and the latter has just two outings to his name this term.

Shelvey averages 51.1 passes per 90, making him Newcastle's second-most prolific user of the ball too. Yet he has failed to supply an assist this season after bagging eight en-route to promotion.

The ability is there, it's a question of unlocking it. If Benítez can do that and put aside his distrust of the Romford-born midfielder then Newcastle's chances of survival will only increase.

Make better use of wide players

With just 16 crosses per game on average, Newcastle put the second-fewest balls in from out wide after Arsenal (15).

The traditional 4-4-2, with an emphasis on getting to the byline and slinging deliveries into the box indiscriminately, has died a death in recent years with the demands on modern wingers shifting.

But that does not mean it isn't a valid method of attack, especially when you have pacy widemen in Jacob Murphy and Christian Atsu, as well as a prolific crosser of the ball in Matt Ritchie.

With five assists in the top flight this term Ritchie is Newcastle's most reliable creator of goals. But the Scotland international also leads the way when it comes to crosses with 6.5 per 90 (1.5 accurate).

Tellingly, though, Atsu (0.3) and Murphy (0.5) are some way behind for accurate crosses despite attempting the third and fourth-most out of every Newcastle player this season. It's time to start making more of their opportunities.

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