Rather than looking on the Premier League season with new-found optimism after a win over Brighton and Hove Albion on Saturday, Newcastle United have been left to lick their wounds. Bottom of the table and now one of just two sides still without a win, their first time at this stage of a season in over a century, confidence that they will get out of trouble is eroding.
Beram Kayal may not have known much about it, but his goal, a deflection from a Jose Izquierdo shot, gave the Seagulls their first away win since November last year, and manager Chris Hughton his first win at St James’ Park since being sacked by Magpies owner Mike Ashley, who was in attendance, eight years ago. Newcastle had 27 attempts on goal, but their inability to show the same creativity and dynamism as they did against Manchester United a fortnight earlier cost them dearly. Brighton didn’t do anything unexpected, but their gamplan worked perfectly, clearing cross after cross, with nothing different to contend with. They rode their luck, especially with the awarding of the corner which led to the winner, but Newcastle simply didn’t ask the right questions. Whatever the statistics say, the hosts did not perform well; they weren’t confident enough to try anything different.
Steve McClaren won in his ninth game of his ill-fated 2015/16 reign, which ended in relegation under Rafael Benitez, as did Alan Pardew the season before. Not just because it was Brighton, the first perceived direct rival that Newcastle were facing at home, but because of the stage in the season, it was vital that they won. Now, under the stewardship of the best manager the club has had for almost 15 years, the records and the stats make for the worst reading. It may be a lesson in context, given that Benitez is the least culpable of all people who have overseen dismal starts to previous seasons, but that doesn’t stop alarm bells ringing and the sense of crisis deepening.
For the first time since his reappearance on matchdays, Ashley met with Benitez and told him not to worry about his future. The notion that he could be sacked is still inconcievable to the vast majority of supporters, but as the results continue to suffer, questions of him remain from pockets of the fan base as well as a growing section of the media. It has been said before, but the reason Ashley and his ownership are under more scrutiny than ever is because those same people, in the stands, in the television studios and the weekly column inches, were unanimous in the idea that Newcastle were lucky to have Benitez, who became a fulcrum of their shared ideals. As that belief erodes, though, his position is weaker and, as a direct consequence, Ashley’s only gets stronger.
Perhaps it is repetitive, but by maintaining the same message that Benitez is the only way out of this mess, if only temporarily because of his contract situation, it helps keep everything in perspective. It has been so long since Ashley took over Newcastle and so much has happened, most of it negative, that even the longest and most loyal fans are getting used to him. Familiarity has, in this case, bred a poisonous apathy, which has stopped the anger towards the current regime going much beyond hot air on social media or in the pub. The summer is a long time ago now, and because Ashley cannot be blamed directly for the issues, the focus shifts onto Benitez and the players during the game. A bad miss here or a poor substitution there, it is they who bare the brunt, when the wider issues still remain.
Every player makes mistakes, as does every manager. When Sergio Agüero missed a fairly easy chance in the first half of Manchester City‘s 5-0 win over Burnley on Saturday, nobody called him out on it and he didn’t dwell on it either. Instead, he helped the champions to an easy victory, ending the game with a goal himself. If, as was the case at the weekend, Ayoze Perez or Yoshinori Muto fail to convert opportunities, panic sets in because there is much less chance another will come along.
Pep Guardiola has got his tactics wrong at times, at others he makes the wrong substitutions, but such is the confidence and the quality of the squad at his disposal, more often than not he isn’t exposed for it. Benitez simply doesn’t have that luxury; he has to think more deeply about his approach, and because the margin for error is so small, he tales the blame more often. He shouldn’t have to, and he wouldn’t if he was working in better conditions, but that is how it is.
Ashley effectively condemned Newcastle to this poor start and potentially disastrous campaign when he reportedly withheld transfer funds until Benitez blinked in contract discussions, which of course he didn’t. As it is, Benitez takes a side devoid of any confidence to Southampton next weekend, needing to see them take more risks. St Mary’s has traditionally been something of a graveyard for Newcastle managers, but Mark Hughes needs to change his own fortunes there, so opportunities will arise.
Belief is the missing ingredient for Newcastle right now, but as the facts prove, there is simply no time to put it right. Saturday was their moment and they let it pass them by.