Former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher said on Sky Sports' Monday Night Football show last night that Rafael Benitez's decision to partner Cheick Tiote with Jack Colback in the centre of midfield has been vital to Newcastle United's resurgence, as quoted by the Chronicle.
The Magpies have won two and drawn two of their last four matches, winning almost a quarter of their season's points tally in those four games, and that run of form has seen them move out of the relegation zone for the first time since February.
Of the numerous changes that Benitez has made since taking over from Steve McClaren, which also include replacing Jonjo Shelvey in the starting XI and as captain with Moussa Sissoko, has been the consistent selection of Tiote and Colback in the midfield.
Tiote had just 15 appearances to his name this season and had not played for a month when the Spanish boss took charge in March, but in the last few weeks he has gone from being out-of-favour to re-establishing himself as a key player for the Tyneside club.
Meanwhile, Colback has been used across the midfield and at full-back this season, but he now appears to have become first choice in the middle of the pitch alongside Tiote, and he scored the Magpies' equaliser in the 2-2 draw against Liverpool at Anfield at the weekend.
Carragher believes that pairing has been key to Newcastle's upturn, and he compared the two players with Benitez's former Liverpool defensive-minded stars Javier Mascherano and Dietmar Hamann.
The former defender said on Sky Sports' Monday Night Football, as quoted by the Chronicle: "The main thing to look at is the two central midfield players he’s picked - Jack Colback and Tiote.I’ve worked with Rafa and he’s big on that – protection for his back four – and those two players are important.
"We had players like Didi Hamann, Javier Mascherano and you can see when you watch Newcastle how close Jack Colback and Tiote are. The structure is that Rafa is looking to the front four and saying: ‘You go and win us the game’. We’ll have the midfield two there, they’ll give us the solidity and it’s up to the front four to go on and win the game.
"It’s not a criticism of Shelvey, he’s better on the ball than either Tiote or Colback. But they give you different things. Shelvey is involved in more passes in his four games under Rafa than the other two – but they’ve been involved in more challenges and interceptions. What speaks for itself is the number of goals conceded by the team when Tiote and Colback play [significantly lower].
"They’re never going to be a team that score a lot of goals under Benitez. They need to keep it tight. That’s a massive difference for them under Rafa."
Newcastle's form has seen them move out of the relegation zone and a point clear of danger with just two games remaining, although both Sunderland and Norwich City hold a potentially crucial game in hand.