It was twelfth time lucky for Newcastle United on Monday night, as they ran out 2-1 winners against Burnley at Turf Moor, a ground they hadn’t won at exactly one month short of 43 years. More telling than the result and two significant monkies finaliy being thrown off their backs, was the manner of the performance on what was a rather strange, but ultimately heroic, evening in Lancashire.
The last eleven games the Magpies had played on a Monday had ended in defeat, let alone without a win, excluding bank holidays. Those in charge of the television schedules have not looked too kindly on Newcastle, particularly in recent years; their previous victory came in their last home game, against Wigan Athletic, six years ago. But that record, and their pretty dire history at the home of Burnley, were put to rest thanks to a result that showed, once again, how Rafael Benitez not only makes the difference for Newcastle, but will be irreplaceable if he does move on, as expected, when his contract expires at the end of the season.
Kick off was delayed by half an hour due to the referees assessor collapsing and being taken to hospital, but rather than getting distracted, the players kept their heads, followed Benitez’s lead, and got to work. A run of five winless games, conceding 13 goals in three of them, was always likely to put Burnley on the back foot in some sense, but Benitez’s switch to three defenders, with Ciaran Clark taking Paul Dummett’s place as a centre back rather than at left-back, really threw the Clarets. They were playing catchup almost from the first whistle.
Matt Ritchie may look back on this game with mixed emotions after his contender for the worst miss of all time in the second half, but that really shouldn’t take away from what was a typically energetic and quality display from the Newcastle winger. He filled in a slightly deeper role on the left, with DeAndre Yedlin mirroring him on the right. Many expected Kenedy to play in this role, but he was freed up to play a more important role; both players were crucial to Newcastle’s play going forward for very different reasons.
While Kenedy looked to get on the ball and drive the visitors forward on the counter attack more centrally and from the right, Ritchie hugged the touchline and made sure that the defence always had an out-ball to find; Burnley couldn’t get to grips with either player, but the most worrying thing from their perspective was how easy their midfield was to bypass. There was none of the energy, desire and organisation so typical of a Sean Dyche team; all of those traits belonged to Newcastle on the night.
An own goal from Ben Mee, who deflected a tame Federico Fernandez shot into the roof of Joe Hart’s net with four minutes on the clock, and Ciaran Clark, who headed home 19 minutes later, put Newcastle in complete control for the majority of the first half. Sam Vokes did half the deficit shortly before the break, which appeared to set the wheels of a Burnley revival in motion, but it never got out of control. Half time certainly came at a good time for Benitez.
The second half perfectly encapsulated why the manager is the best man for the Newcastle hot seat, and more than likely the only man; his calm exterior and self confidence has steered the entire club away from choppy waters more than once in his near three-year reign. Previous Newcastle teams, which may have been more talented, would have folded in the second 45 minutes; fear of losing a two-goal lead would have exposed a weak mentality which has plagued the club for over a decade. At no point, though, did Benitez’s men look flustered, and though Burnley had chances, the manner in which Newcastle stuck to the same plan was mightily impressive and boads well for the rest of the season.
Perhaps a more confident Clarets side would have put one of those opportunities, which mainly fell to Vokes and his strike partner Chris Wood, but the better chances still fell to Newcastle. Quite how Ritchie missed, from two yards out with the ball rolling towards him unchallenged, remains a mystery, while Joselu, who replaced Salomon Rondon after a mixed night for the Venezuelan, also hit the post.
Every doubt about the team has now been proven wrong; they have shown their attacking prowess, with the confidence added it is finally coming to the fore, and squad depth has shown itself not to be an issue, either. Fernandez and Fabian Schär, impressed in the absence of captain Jamaal Lascelles, while Ki Sung-Yueng kept a fit again Jonjo Shelvey out of the starting XI. Neither he nor Lascelles have played a part since being substituted against Watford, before this winning run really started, and it is brilliant that they can no longer just walk back into the side, despite their obvious importance.
Three wins from three, a first win at Turf Moor and bringing an end to the Monday night curse; it was a very fruitful and successful evening in Burnley. Brimming with self belief right throughout the squad, Newcastle welcome West Ham to St James’ Park on Saturday afternoon; playing on the front foot and sticking to Benitez’s plan could see them move three points clear of the Hammers.
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