Newcastle United have taken a ride on the managerial merry-go-round, as relegation-threatened clubs often do at this point in the season, and on paper, at least, it’s seemingly paid off.
Nothing is assured in the ever-unpredictable Premier League but the Magpies have swapped a manager whose greatest triumph was reaching the UEFA Cup final once in Steve McClaren with another who has won the tournament twice, not to mention lifting the Champions League trophy with Liverpool in 2005, and was donning the dugout at Real Madrid just a matter of months ago.
Indeed, if Rafa Benitez isn’t one of the best in the business, he’s at the very least one of the best of the rest, claiming domestic trophies throughout his spells in England, Spain and Italy, boasting a phenomenal record in Europe and a vast level of experience in all matters Premier League from six campaigns with the Reds and Chelsea.
Yet, with just 10games remaining to save Newcastle’s season and Premier League status – starting with a floodlight visit to table-toppers Leicester City this evening – this remains arguably the greatest and most unique challenge of Benitez’s managerial career, not least because he’s far more acquainted with life at the opposing end of the table. Although the Spaniard remains a coup in theory, question marks still linger over his suitability to the daunting task facing the Magpies.
Benitez has already insisted otherwise: “I’ve heard I’m not used to relegation battles but I’m a coach from the [Spanish] third and second divisions originally so I have some experience. People say it’s not the same, but I think it is. You have to approach the games the same, you have to be calm, you don’t want to make mistakes.”
It’s true the 55-year-old does boast a brief history of attempting to avoid trap doors; his Extramadura side came close but ultimately failed to stave off relegation from La Liga during the 1998/99 campaign, missing out on safety by a single point.
But that was in a foreign top flight almost twenty years ago involving a side he’d won promotion with the season before. In contrast, Benitez is now inheriting a team designed by his predecessor that he’ll have to improve almost instantaneously. By no means impossible – Benitez had a quick impact during his interim spell at Stamford Bridge – and many of the Spaniard’s managerial skills are certainly transferable, but Newcastle nonetheless represent a considerably different kind of challenge.
Perhaps the biggest concern is whether Benitez can work with players of significantly lesser quality than over the last 15 years of his career, especially considering man management has never been his defining strength – in fact, it’s arguably his inherent weakness. He and Cristiano Ronaldo didn’t see eye-to-eye at Real Madrid and Steven Gerrard surprisingly made similar claims about his relationship with Benitez last year.
The Liverpool legend wrote in his autobiography; “Rafa was appointed as Liverpool’s manager in June 2004 and I was playing for England in the Euros in Portugal that summer. Even though he was being replaced by Rafa, Gerard Houllier still loved Liverpool and he remained very close to me. He and my mum flew out to Portugal to watch me play for England against Croatia — and they bumped into Rafa. Gerard introduced Rafa to my mum. Rafa shook her hand, said hello and then immediately asked her a very blunt question: ‘Does Steven like money?'”
There won’t be time for such pleasantries on Tyneside anyway, let alone discussions about money. Likewise, Benitez’s quality as a tactician is indisputable and over the course of 10 games, you’d expect it to lead Newcastle to at least a handful of valuable wins. This is, after all, a manager who has mentally duelled with some of the game’s all-time greats.
But in a relegation battle, and especially when inheriting a side lacking confidence and form, the ability to motivate effectively is arguably more important than tactical nous. That particularly rings true in regards to next weekend’s derby against relegation rivals Sunderland – a fiercely-contested fixture that usually sees the playbook discarded after the first ten minutes as half of 22 players involved pick up early yellow cards.
So could Newcastle have found a better candidate to succeed Steve McClaren? Don’t get me wrong, Benitez is a real coup on a three-year contract considering the Magpies’ league standing. But in the context of the current campaign and the three-horse relegation battle Newcastle now find themselves in – with Aston Villa all-but-mathematically down already – there were certainly more suitable alternatives within the club’s reach.
Former West Ham, Portsmouth, Southampton and QPR boss Harry Redknapp has spent much of his career battling the Premier League’s trapdoor, sometimes successfully sometimes not, and is one of the Premier League’s best when it comes to galvanising the dressing room. Nigel Pearson masterminded Leicester City’s great escape at the end of last season and although some of his public antics bewildered to almost inexplicable levels, he always seemed to have the players on side. David Moyes knows about both ends of the Premier League table and everything in between, whilst his uncomplicated yet effective football could’ve really helped a side who don’t have the time to reinvent the wheel.
So was Benitez the right appointment, with the aforementioned also available? Only time will tell and I’m not going to make any predictions now, especially before Newcastle have even kicked a ball under the Spaniard. But if there’s one certainty, it’s that the 55-year-old is a talented manager who won’t buckle to the demands of Mike Ashley, who will insist upon freedom in the transfer market, who offers an encyclopaedic knowledge of world football and who has brought success to the majority of his employers.
If Benitez can mastermind Newcastle’s survival this season, the next three years on Tyneside could see the club finally move in the right direction. Regardless of the Spaniard’s quality, however, that’s still a very big if at this moment in time.