No wins in five games, hoards of protesting supporters on their doorstep and doubts over the fitness and attitude of players in their squad; while it has been a tough start to the new season for Newcastle United, it has hardly been atypical. Negativity and discontent have gone hand in hand with supporting the Magpies for a number of years, and things don’t look like changing.
Nobody quite does soap opera like Newcastle; after a summer of incompetence, most fans would have expected such poor results when looking at the fixtures. Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City all passed with defeats, and all by the same scoreline of 2-1; but after Arsenal got the same result at St James’ Park on Saturday, the atmosphere felt somewhat dIfferent. Previous results had been shrugged off, to a degree, because of the circumstances; Newcastle had played well, but ultimately succumbed to the gulf in quality to their opponents. Despite all of the protests before kick off, aimed yet again at owner Mike Ashley, some of the criticism has been geared towards the manager, Rafael Benitez.
For him, that is nothing new, but it was strange that it was coming from the stands, rather than the TV studios and column inches. Benitez remains confident about the season ahead despite the weekend loss, thanks to two wonderful goals by Granit Xhaka and Mesut Özil, but some people were unhappy with the team selection. Jonjo Shelvey, Salomon Rondon, Kenedy, DeAndre Yedlin and Matt Ritchie were all doubts, according to Benitez, and he only selected the latter pair from the start. Even so, his side had a good go in the first half, putting Arsenal on the backfoot early on and targeting their defensive weaknesses. That was more than they did against Chelsea or, but for a short spell before half time, City. After the break, though, as the Gunners, aided by the introduction of Uruguayan midfielder Lucas Torreira, stepped up their intensity and efficiency, Newcastle froze. Unai Emery’s men played scintillating football in a 15 minute period, with Torreira at heart of it, and that was all it took to head back to North London victorious. The organisation and togetherness that has become synonymous with Benitez’s Newcastle just weren’t there anymore, which then put the spotlight on Rondon and Shelvey in particular, and why they weren’t summoned.
The biggest factor in that, and thew hosts’ sudden collapse, was the absence of captain Jamaal Lascelles in the second half. According to Benitez, the 24-year-old felt his ankle, the same one that has given him trouble before, in the warm up and he had to be replaced by Ciaran Clark, who scored a late consolation, at half time. There can be no doubt that loss had an impact on not just the team itself, because Lascelles is the heartbeat and the general on the pitch, but also Benitez’s substitutions. With just two remaining, he could no longer bring on all three remaining ‘risks’ that were waiting in the wings; Kenedy replaced Jacob Murphy, a real bright spark in the first half, while Yoshinori Muto later came on for Ritchie. Isaac Hayden, a player who made it clear he wanted to leave the club in the summer, was particularly poor, and though the game was tailor-made for Shelvey to counteract the threat Torreira brought, by the time Muto arrived on the pitch, Newcastle needed a goal and a more attacking change. Benitez doesn’t like playing two main strikers, and he trusts Joselu, the man he started up front, much more than many fans do, so he wasn’t going to go like-for-like with Rondon, perhaps because it woudn’t have made much difference in his mind.
Since the Ashley vs Benitez rhetoric picked up pace almost 18 months ago now, some fans have spoken about not being able to hold Benitez to account for fear of mass criticism from their peers, while not pinning everything on the regime is also seen as unacceptable to others. Not everything is Ashley’s fault, and Benitez is not immune to criticism; his substitutions were questionable, even factoring in Lascelles‘ absence. Rondon would have undoubtelly made a difference had he replaced Joselu, even in the same system, because he has looked head and shoulders above anybody else in attack in his cameo role this season, and there is no way Hayden warranted 90 minutes on his showing; Shelvey was a better option even if he wasn’t a particularly forward-thinking one, and though there were clearly more concerns over his fitness than the rest, it would be fair to ask why he was in the squad if there was never an intention to use him. It felt as though there wasn’t much of a plan at the stage that Muto, who was more or less ineffectual alongside Ayoze Perez, came on, but the wider issue of the performance is at the players’ door. They should be able to stand up and be counted, with or without Lascelles, and the continuing evidence that they can’t is where the worry is developing.
One of the biggest positives from the whole game was Federico Fernandez, who was excellent throughout. But the lack of application in some quarters and belief in others has alarm bells ringing. Crystal Palace are next up before Leicester City head To Tyneside; and while the fixture list is finally looking kinder, the pressure on those games is already immense, with Newcastle looking far from United. The list of doubters is growing, and they must be proven wrong.
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