In some ways, Rafael Benitez was extremely philosophical in the wake of Newcastle United’s 3-0 defeat to West Ham United on Saturday, but in others, he was brutally honest about the future. There can be no doubting that the Magpies’ three-game winning run was justifiably ended by the Hammers at St James’ Park; in fact, the manner arguably flattered the hosts.
Benitez’s assessment came down to one word, constantly repeated throughout all his answers to the post-match questions; quality. The Newcastle manager admitted that Javier Hernandez, who scored twice, Felipe Anderson, scorer of the other, Marko Arnautovic and Robert Snodgrass were the difference on the day, and that sometimes there is nothing that can be done to stop players like that when in form. But underneath that acceptance was a definite tone of frustration; in a dream world, Newcastle would have spent over £100million last summer and built a squad capable of those kind of performances, just like their opponents.
If nothing else, this game can be viewed as a wake up call; both for owner Mike Ashley, who didn’t attend the game, and the supporters themselves. Ashley shouldn’t need anything to make him see the problems his approach to running the club has caused, but they were laid bare for everyone to see, heading into January, but perhaps some fans were a lititle overconfident looking at recent and ancient history. Benitez says he “hopes” Newcastle can attract players of a similar level when the transfer window reopens in January, but that simply isn’t enough; there is no getting away from it, the gulf in class from West Ham cost them on Saturday and will undoubtedly come back to haunt them again in future.
The three victories came against teams who Newcastle could bridge the gap to with hard work and desire; Watford, Bournemouth and Burnley are not so far ahead, and they too rely heavily on their attitiude and approach to better themselves. West Ham may not be consistent, but having spent £17million on Hernandez, £24million on Arnautovic and £42million on Anderson, all three costing more than the Magpies‘ current record signing and the latter more than the eleven players he faced, they don’t need to be consistent; their best performance will always be hard to match.
Manuel Pellegrini deserves great credit for his tactical plan coming into the game, too; recognising how Newcastle have done most of their damage in recent weeks on the counter attack, he forced the issue. The home side had more of the ball from the moment Hernandez put his side ahead with just 11 minutes on the clock, ironically as some Newcastle supporters were taking their seats in protest against the 11 years Ashley has ran the club, but every time the visitors went forward on the break, they were a threat. Pellegrini was clearly a tad frustrated that his side had failed to score more, and he had good reason for that.
On an afternoon where Newcastle were favourites to make it four wins in a row and anticipation ahead of the first concrete protests was high, things didn‘t go to plan. Numbers weren’t great for the walk in on the 11th minute, ahead of the plan to boycott the game against Wolves completely next weekend, but fans should not be criticised for trying, and not giving up, in their fight against the regime. It was also a comprehensive way for the Hammers to get their first win on Tyneside for six years, and just their second in 19 years, but they played it perfectly.
Even more worrying for Newcastle is the fact that their next game, against Everton at Goodison Park on Wednesday, is another one where they could be susceptible to a difference in quality. Their record on Merseyside, be it the blue or the red half, is not great anyway, with one win in the last seven visits, but the Toffees, under the stewardship of a very enthusiastic and intelligeny young coach in Marco Silva, have also spent big on improving their attack, just like West Ham.
Having inherited a squad which included big money signings like Cenk Tosun, a reported one-time Magpies target, Ther Walcott and Gylfi Sigurdsson, who cost a combined £92million, Silva added Brazilian Richarlison from Watford at £50million, as well as Bernard on a free transfer from Shakhtar Donetsk. All are in form, playing in the way Silva is demanding, and all are players Benitez can only dream about signing right now.
Perhaps it does seem like an excuse for Newcastle, and it is true that not everybody has spent the money West Ham and Everton have, but these are two games that isolate the lack of ambition to even try and compete. Benitez knows that it is games against the teams further down the table that will decide his side’s fate, but the longer he goes without a fair hand in his attempts to get Newcastle where he wants them, the tougher it will get. That is the lesson learnt from Saturday, and Newcastle could be forced to sit through another class on Wednesday.
As much as the victories in recent weeks have shown Benitez’s qualities, it is games like Saturday that show how tough his job really is. Newcastle fans potentially underestimated West Ham, and overestimated their own side, but this week will be the biggest indicator yet to Ashley what true investment in quality can lead to.
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