The biggest challenge facing Rafael Benitez this summer

After spending so much money in the summer, Newcastle – and their Champions League winning manager – were criticised for sitting in second place in the Championship, while it looked like the much less moneyed Brighton would win the league.

It’s the kind of criticism that football does best: it neglects nuance and promotes only the facts that suits the argument while burying others.

For example, Newcastle’s net spend – thanks mostly to the sales of Moussa Sissoko and Georginio Wijnaldum – was the lowest of any promoted club since the Championship was renamed back in 2004/05. Brighton’s, on the other hand, was the second highest, beaten only by Cardiff in 2013.

All of that talk is deeply unhelpful, though. In fact, it’s thoroughly distracting.

The most important places in the Championship are the first and second places. Both are equal in their prize: a place in next season’s Premier League. That is genuinely all that matters. Newcastle were crowned champions and lifted the trophy, but it’s the kind of thing you only want to win for pride – you’d rather come second and avoid relegation the next season than win come 18th the next year. Newcastle should have bigger fish to fry.

And they do. But that in itself will pose the biggest problem for Rafael Benitez this summer: managing expectation.

Already, people have started to talk about how well the Magpies will do next season. They have a huge, packed stadium, massive support, one of the biggest names in football management and, thanks to their net spend this season and a new Premier League TV rights deal, they should have more money to spend than ever before. As the only Premier League club in the North East, Newcastle should be aiming for glory. Right?

And yet that’s the last thing Benitez should want to promise. Clearly, he’s only the Newcastle manager because he thinks he can succeed there, but instant success is a dangerous dream, especially for a club who are newly promoted.

One of the reasons Newcastle’s season looks so underwhelming it because of their home form. It picked up in the final few weeks, but if only home games counted, the Magpies would be in the playoffs and only after a late surge.

Just like automatic promotion, though, it doesn’t matter how you do it, just as long as you do it. They won the league and they did it even though their home form wasn’t the best – their away form was. So what?

But unlike this season’s league position, home form will matter a great deal next season. The thought that Benitez’s side would sweep all before them in the Championship is what created an expectant atmosphere around St James’ Park this season. In turn, the team started to struggle.

Next season could be a similar story is expectations aren’t managed. Only worse. Struggling to draw with Bristol City at home is one thing, but that’ll only get harder next season.

And yet, there should be genuine optimism at the club for the first time in a long while. All of the reasons why someone would expect a great deal from Newcastle next season are still true, but the expectation should be that it should translate into long-term success, not breaking into the top half of the table next season.

At the moment, the Premier League is split into a top seven and the rest. Finishing eighth should be seen as winning the league, and yet Leicester City – who were said to be in a relegation battle not so long ago – are only two points behind that position. That’s how tight it is.

The question for Newcastle needs to be what they count as success next season. It is a town that thirsts for European football and its first major trophy in decades, but it’s the perception that’s damaging.

They’re not a team who spent big to get out of the Championship, they’re a team who did it intelligently. But the perception that spending millions of pounds and winning the league is probably what will translate into a clamour to spend again and achieve a top half finish, maybe more.

Benitez’s biggest job this summer is keeping feet on the ground.

 


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