Such is the fickle nature of modern football, you’ll be hard pressed to find a fan base that doesn’t point the finger at the manager upon seeing their club take a miserly two points from the first nine games of the season, but Newcastle supporters and Rafa Benitez are a rare exception.
That’s partly because you’ll be equally hard pressed to find a manager as experienced and proven as Benitez willing to take over a club as consistently farcical as Newcastle, let alone one who could reasonably claim they’d do a better job than the former Champions League winner.
But that’s also partly because there’s a common consensus that the real problems at the club lay much higher up with Mike Ashley, an owner who only appears interested in using Newcastle to support his other business interests and was one of just two in the Premier League last summer to make a net profit in the transfer market.
In the minds of many, that bottom line is all the evidence needed to pin total blame on Ashley and under-investment in the first team squad for Newcastle’s plight this season. Standing still in the Premier League nearly always transgresses into quickly slipping backwards, because even teams like newly promoted Fulham are prepared to make £100million’s worth of new signings, and that’s already happening up at St. James’ Park. From a tenth-placed finish in the Premier League last term, the Magpies are now rock bottom of the division.
But there must be a point when Benitez takes responsibility too, and for all the criticism of Newcastle’s transfer policy the club have guaranteed the manager one thing many teams at the Toon’s end of the table desperately lack – Premier League experience. Indeed, the starting XI that lost to Brighton last Saturday boasted a combined 1000 appearances in the top flight, including four players with 100 appearances or more and just three with less than 50. Compare that, not to mention the 311 Premier League games under Benitez’s belt, to the rest of the bottom five and there’s a drastic difference.
Of course, experience isn’t everything. West Brom’s squad enjoyed it in abundance last season, not least including the Premier League’s all-time record appearance maker Gareth Barry, yet still plummeted out of the top flight in bottom place after spending the campaign playing agricultural football. But their vast experience was a sign of an over-the-hill squad with an average age of 29 – Newcastle’s this season is less than 27, arguably when it should be enjoying its collective footballing prime.
And if experience doesn’t necessarily guarantee quality, it should at least bring the nous to get points on the board even during bouts of poor form. However, that’s precisely what Newcastle have failed to do this season; they threw away a two-goal lead at Old Trafford, succumbed to Brighton’s pragmatism last weekend and couldn’t even score against let alone beat Cardiff, the club that put out the least experienced starting XI of any side in the Premier League’s bottom half last weekend and for the money of most is the least talented team in the division.
Newcastle’s level of experience isn’t a consequence of sheer longevity at the club either, although they do have a number of long-standing servants. Since dropping down to the Championship, 15 of Newcastle’s 25 first-team signings arrived at the club with some form of prior Premier League experience, including Federico Fernandez who added over 100 top flight appearances to Benitez’s starting XI last weekend.
You can criticise the level of quality brought into the club and the lack of ambition shown since Newcastle returned to the top tier, but every manager in the bottom half of the table would bite their chairman’s hand off at the chance to have 57% of their signings join with at least some experience of Premier League football.
So when you combine that with what Benitez knows about the Premier League, a significant portion of the blame must lay with the manager. There’s no doubt Newcastle overachieved last season, but considering not only the manager’s experience but also the experience available to him, there’s little doubt as well that the current squad is now underachieving with just two points from nine games, even in light of the difficult calibre of opposition they’ve faced.
When you ignore all the white noise about the club’s limited ambition, Ashley’s toxic leadership, all the negative ramifications of a summer transfer surplus and analyse the first-team squad in a vacuum, this Newcastle team should be in a better place right now, getting more points and probably playing a more attractive brand of football too. Ultimate responsibility for that, albeit no doubt influenced by factors beyond his control, inevitably falls with Benitez.
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