Rafael Benitez’s masterstroke could be what keeps Newcastle afloat

A glance at the bottom of the Premier League table is enough to make your head spin.

Southampton are third from bottom and in the final relegation spot, but three points could take them as high as 13th. Then again, all of the other teams are so unpredictable that there is movement every single week: a defeat isn’t the setback it used to be, just an inevitable cost of doing business.

It’s like musical chairs – whoever lands in the bottom three when the music stop, though, will face a harsh punishment. It’s that fear that leads to cagey games. Nerves and indecisiveness, in turn, cost points.

This season, however difficult it has been for Newcastle United, the Magpies have been nothing if not decisive: at least when it comes to the actual football. Rafael Benitez, for all his criticisms of the club’s transfer business in both the summer and January windows, has taken a very decisive action this campaign – he’s imposed style of play he’s betting will take the club to the 40 or so points needed to stay in the division.

When points are this tight, there’s only one thing to save you: goal difference.

This season, Newcastle have conceded 36 goals. Along with Brighton, that is the best in the bottom half, and outside of the top six, only high-flying Burnley have conceded fewer. Indeed, the Magpies have only suffered three-goal defeats twice in the Premier League this season, away to Manchester United and at home to Watford in successive games in November, at a time many would probably characterise as the real low point of this campaign.

Then again, plenty would have said that a festive fixture at St James’s Park against Manchester City marked something of a style low point, even if the result wasn’t as bad as the beatings mentioned above. That night, Newcastle simply didn’t care about scoring a goal when they stepped out onto the pitch: they wanted a clean sheet.

In the end, they didn’t get it, but with the Premier League table looking as tight at the bottom as it has ever done in recent memory, that might turn out to be crucial. Slated at the time for their negative mindset, Newcastle kept the scoreline to 1-0 on a night when other teams might have lost by four or five to a record-breaking City side who were simply irresistible around that time. Did it show a lack of ambition? Maybe. But will it keep the Magpies in the division? That’s a real possibility.

No team below Newcastle has a better goal difference, and most have to make up quite a few goals to catch Benitez’s side on that score. That means they’ll need to get more points than the Magpies this season, not just catch them.

This is the tightest season most can remember at the bottom of the table, and although a few good results for those currently in the midtable positions could create a gap over the next few games, you get the feeling that there will be a final day shootout. Most teams are averaging somewhere around the one point per game mark. If it stays that way, Newcastle’s goal difference will probably keep them up.

That home game against Manchester City could well turn out to be a masterstroke.