Just six minutes after half time during Newcastle United’s first win of the season against Watford on Saturday, everyobody feared the worst. Jonjo Shelvey, the creative hub of Rafael Benitez’s squad, hobbled off the pitch to be replaced by Ki Sung-Yueng. He was joining Yoshinori Muto and Jamaal Lascelles in being forced off through injury.
At the time, the score was 0-0 and moments after a half time break which Newcastle desperately needed. Even with Lascelles, their inspirational captain, Shelvey, arguably theit most important player, and Muto, their most expensive summer signing, on the pitch, Watford had dominated the first half. Only their poor finishing had kept the score level at the break. The Magpies only picked up one point last season without Lascelles, and already struggled to create chances and score goals before Shelvey and Muto departed. Things looked dire, but the irony was delicious.
Considering Watford’s recent form, winning their last two games and sitting in the top seven, compared to a downtrodden Newcastle’s, and the history of this fixture, the Hornets having won the last five meetings, as well as the run of play, only one winner was expected. Yet, a squad devoid of any confidence rallied; Ki, and the other two replacements Ayoze Perez and Fabian Schär, inspired a completely different performance. St James’ Park sounded like it hadn’t all season; the togetherness, the effort and the composure from last season returned for the first time after Perez nodded in Ki’s free kick just past the hour mark.
All three of those substitutes have been criticised this season and struggled to break into Benitez’s plans when everybody is fit, but they were the difference. Perez was booed by sections of the support as he came on, and took great pleasure in proving a point with his goal. The manager credited all three of them for what they brought to the game, having previously admitted criticism of the Spanish striker was “understandable.”
”Ki and Schär did well,“ Benitez said after the game. “Ayoze was working really hard, trying to get close to (Salomon) Rondon and he got the goal.
”The three of them gave us something. I can’t complain about what we were doing in the first half, but in the second half, when people are a little bit more tired, they were helping the team keep the ball and pass the ball.
”When we scored the goal, we needed to be calm and control the game even more. I thought they did well.”
Even Benitez must have been surprised by their impacts, though. Ki has been left out in the cold at times this season, even when Mohamed Diame hasd been struggling the most, but he brought something different to Shelvey. Instead of the inch-perfect long passes which are usually so crucial to Newcastle‘s ability to unlock defences, were replaced by his shorter but quicker approach, which unlocked both Kenedy and Matt Ritchie out wide and helped force Watford back. With the first Premier League crowd of less than 50,000 in the Benitez era behind them, the home side were able to do what Watford had done to them in the first half.
After riding their luck before the break, the tide turned. Gerard Deulofeu and Isaac Success could have put the game to bed, while Roberto Pereyra struck the bar after half time before substitutes Andre Gray and Stefano Okaka saw chances go begging. By then, though, Newcastle had earned their luck, and Benitez was quick to point out that the work ethic evident towards the end may have been unfairly overlooked if the visitors had equalised.
“I understand it is football now, but sometimes it is not fair to say you have more character and passion if you win and if you cannot win you don’t have it,” he said.
”Against Brighton we had it, against Manchester United and even Tottenham in the first game of the season we had it.
“The team is working hard and giving everything, the difference is when you score. If you do that and win, everything is okay.”
”This team is what we have. It is a team that works hard, defends well and is organised. We still have players in the final third that can make the difference.
”We need to win more games, gain more confidence and the players will try more things in the final third.”
It really is hard to argue with Benitez there, too. Confdience is the biggest issue and it just took a catalyst to unlock it. While that catalyst came from unexpected sources, it made the world of difference. This season, Kenedy has played within himself, not believing in his ability to make things happen. Against Watford, though, he was everywhere when the game changed, including at the back, making a last-ditch challenge to deny Gray.
Moving forward, with an equally tough task against Bournemouth next week before a trip to Burnley and a clash with West Ham after the international break, the challenge will be to maintain those levels, both on the pitch and in the stands, whether Lascelles, Shelvey and Muto are fit or not. Now there is more belief in the squad as a whole; Benitez always said that was all that was needed to turn the fortunes around.
All of the hard work starts here; maintaining a push away from danger will require a lot of effort and luck, but for the first time this season, Newcastle have the blueprint for success.