How can a team score twice in the first ten minutes at Old Trafford, yet refuse to attack until the last ten minutes when they’re at home to Chelsea?
There are so many variables in football and even when they’re taken into account, not everything is quantifiable enough to give a legitimate explanation. But the incredible contrast between two Newcastle performances against two members of the Premier League’s big six highlights the strange paradox Rafa Benitez has created at St. James’ Park.
There is a perception that this Newcastle side lacks Premier League quality, belongs in the Championship on paper, and has only exceeded its means in terms of results because of the world-class ability of the man in the dugout. There’s no disputing that Benitez is a top manager, and that last season’s tenth place finish was an overachievement after just coming up from the second tier.
But for all of what Benitez gives to Newcastle, he limits them too by implementing a style of football which only adds to the narrative that these players aren’t good enough to be in the Premier League.
Yet when he takes the handbrake off like he did on Saturday, when Newcastle surged forward and got bodies into the box early on to leave Jose Mourinho facing the grimmest of nightmares, the Magpies suddenly looked like a talented team capable of giving pretty much everyone in the top flight a decent game.
Fair enough, last weekend’s trip to Old Trafford ended in defeat – but that only came when Newcastle reverted to type, when they stuck every man behind the ball and let United heap the pressure on. When Newcastle were actually taking the game to the home side, they were by far the better team. We just haven’t seen enough of that since Newcastle returned to the Premier League, and it’s not because of the quality of player at the club.
When you actually look at the personnel in Newcastle’s squad, the idea that it’s below Premier League standard is a complete myth.
How can Magpies fans say from one side of their mouths that Jonjo Shelvey and Jamal Lascelles should be in the frame for the England team, but in the other say their club is only being kept in the Premier League by Benitiez’s pragmatic tactics? How can Kenedy be worth a minimum of £20million, as The Mag argued in the summer, yet the only thing sparing Newcastle from the second tier is Benitez’s agricultural brand of hoof-ball?
The most a Championship side has paid for any player is the £16million Wolves spent on Ruben Neves – this Newcastle team are a level above that.
There’s a strange disconnect between the narrative and the reality, the idea that Benitez is being made to set Newcastle up as defensively as possible because of the quality of player available to him as a consequence of Mike Ashley’s refusal to spend.
But just like those mentioned above, Martin Dubravka is a Premier League standard goalkeeper, DeAndre Yedlin is one of the fastest defenders in the division, Ayoze Perez is a talent once lauded by Barcelona and Real Madrid, Yoshinori Muto arrived in the summer with three seasons of regular scoring in the Bundesliga under his belt, Salomon Rondon lacks goal threat but suits Benitez’s system perfectly and Mohamed Diame, Matt Ritchie and Federico Fernandez, albeit far from world-beaters, have established records in the top flight.
Should a club of Newcastle’s stature be recruiting a higher calibre of player? Certainly. But that doesn’t mean Benitez needs to resort to a considerably lower standard of football – a standard that saw the Tynesiders take just 19% possession and three shots on target at home to a Chelsea side that, no doubt hugely talented, at that point had only been conceived by Maurizio Sarri for a matter of weeks.
They’re by no means an easy team to beat, in fact no Premier League side has defeated them last season, but West Ham managed to nick a point off them at the London Stadium last month.
Considering Chelsea have such a poor record in the North East and the boost St. James’ Park can give to this Newcastle team, surely a draw at home wasn’t completely beyond Newcastle’s reach either. Benitez though, only let his team get forward for the last ten minutes once they had gone a goal down.
This isn’t a defence of Ashley, who has obviously capped Newcastle’s potential with his stringent transfer budgets and understandably alienated pretty much the entirety of the club’s fan base.
But at first team level, when you look at what Bournemouth, Fulham, Watford, Wolves and Leicester have achieved in terms of style of play since coming up to the top flight, Benitez is clearly capping Newcastle’s potential too.
If money is the ultimate issue – many of those clubs have generated the funds to bring in exciting attacking talent, Sean Dyche has similarly finite resources at Burnley and employs a similar philosophy but managed to take them all the way to seventh last year. Even at his own game, Benitez has been surpassed by the Turf Moor boss over the last few years.
The ultimate question, therefore, is thus; can Newcastle achieve a similar level of results as they are currently, while playing in a more expansive way that actually gives them a chance of winning every game, that doesn’t make every Magpie on the pitch look like a Championship player, that creates the idea of a long-term identity at St. James’ Park?
Maybe Benitez can do no wrong in the eyes of Newcastle fans, but the Magpies’ potent start against Manchester United proved this team is capable of much more and in terms of entertainment, the Rafalution has been selling them short for a while now.