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.
After months of protests and drumming up support on social media, Newcastle United fans are ready to take a stand. West Ham United are the visitors to St James’ Park on Saturday afternoon, but in a strange way, that is not the main focus of the day on Tyneside.
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.
What do Sean Dyche, Alan Pardew and Michael Laudrup have in common? All three of them know first hand how taxing and frustrating the Europa League can be on teams who are not built to compete in it; though only the former, and his Burnley side, are still living through it now. The Clarets are preparing to welcome Newcastle United to Turf Moor on Monday night.
Rafael Benitez could have looked at the timing of the international break in two ways. On the one hand, it may have frustrated him; after two wins on the bounce at home to Watford and Bournemouth, perhaps it will kill the momentum his side were building. But for a thinker like the Magpies boss, any opportunity to stop and reassess is probably a welcome one.
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.
Selling Aleksandar Mitrovic and allowing Dwight Gayle to depart on loan in the summer meant Rafael Benitez’s transfer business with regards his strikers was immediately under heavy scrutiny. Upgrading his attacking options has been a constant struggle for Benitez at Newcastle United, and the early signs this season are that struggle has continued.
From their own point of view, Newcastle United’s trip to Old Trafford on Saturday was as close to a ‘must win’ as a trip to Old Trafford can get; but as usual when Manchester United are involved, the opposition matter little. Splashed across a national newspaper in the build up to the game were reports of the end for Jose Mourinho, had arrived, no matter the result.
Two days have since past and Mourinho is still in charge; it looks as though the situation had been greatly exaggerated. Perhaps it is easy to say that now because the home side won, and in a fashion which makes it easy for the Red Devils boss to claim that what his team were accused of missing; togetherness, heart and a clear direction, shone through at the perfect moment. Ask Ed Woodward, the club’s CEO, what to act on what he was thinking ten minutes into the game, though, and the picture may look completely different, Alexis Sanchez scored a last gasp winner on the night, after a quick double between 15 and 20 minutes earlier from Juan Mata and Anthony Martial restored parity, Newcastle had been leading 2-0, and it looked for so long as if the unthinkable could actually happen.
After the match, the home players jumped on social media to praise the atmosphere in the stadium and the spirit of everyone involved; had Sanchez not struck, the media would have pointed out how flat the fans were and, once again, how disjointed the team was. Now they are left asking if this changes anything, and whether Mourinho‘s salvage mission is possible. Either way, they are not talking about Newcastle.
Even the state Manchester United were in before the game didn’t change the Magpies’ supporters’ confidence levels. Rafael Benitez‘s side had their own problems; winless all season and missing key players through injury again, they understood the task may be too tough, but the situation required a result. The only saving grace was that two other teams, Cardiff and Huddersfield, had not tasted victory either; that is still the case now, it is the first time since 1973 that so many teams have started this slowly.
The ecstasy of the early lead, thanks to goals from Kenedy and Yoshinori Muto, his first in English football, made the bitter feeling of defeat even worse. Having acknowledged victory was almost impossible beforehand, holding it in their hands for the majority of the evening, 76 minutes in fact, made the result hurt so much more than a “brave” 2-0 defeat ever could. But it just served as a brutal reminder to everyone that this is Newcastle United, where spectacular failure is the speciality, and it is what they signed up for.
It said everything about the home side that Benitez, the man accused so often of not believing in his side’s attacking ability, played two strikers up front from the start. Not just any two strikers either; ignoring Joselu, his tried and trusted battering ram who acts as the perfect first line of defence, he opted for the more physically slight but dynamic pair of Muto and Ayoze Perez in order to put the opposing defence under scrutiny. It paid off.
Yet opting against energy conservation in the first half ultimately proved costly, and Newcastle’s lack of squad depth, leading directly to the lack of transfer activity at the hand of the watching Mike Ashley, became the focus again. That may be the ultimate reason for the result, but there were chances to put the game beyond Mourinho before the break and they weren’t taken. David de Gea was called into action on more than one ocassion, while a clear hand ball against Ashley Young was not given as a penalty. Referee Anthony Taylor, who wasn’t even looking at the incident, pointed for a goal kick.
In the end, the difference laid in the substitutions. The hosts have shown many times, even before Mourinho’s tenure, that they perform better when throwing caution to the wind. It allowed Mata, who replaced Eric Bailly after less than 20 minutes because of Newcastle’s approach, Sanchez and Marouane Fellaini more freedom to impact the game than Mourinho usually allows them. Wave after wave of pressure came Newcastle’s way after the break, but as they were running out of steam, Benitez could only call on Joselu, Jacob Murphy and Christian Atsu, none of whom were suited for the situation.
After the international break, there is a stretch of fixtures which should be quite favourable to Newcastle, but if results don’t come then the trouble becomes more real. Brighton and Watford are the next two visitors to St James’ Park, sandwiching an away trip to Southampton; at least seven points are needed in those games, not just to get the team up the table, but to arrest the worrying growth in questions being asked of Benitez.
Many fans believe he opted for the wrong players off the bench on Saturday, and that he should have been more defensive. As has already been said, the options were extremely limited, especially compared to the likes of Sanchez and Mata. The constant desire to aim shots at the manager can only develop into wanting him out; Newcastle getting rid of Benitez would be like selling a petrol engine Lamborghini because it has diesel in it, a completely idiotic decision. As Mouirinho said after the game, Ashley is paying for failing to heed Benitez’s warnings; he and he alone should be in the firing line.
The manner of the defeat at Manchester United was heartbreaking, but there are still positives that can be taken. Newcastle finally flexed their muscles going forward, and if Benitez can get more life out of his team against Brighton in two weeks time, there may be light at the end of this long, dark tunnel.
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Leicester City have shown that they are better club than Newcastle United off the pitch for many years now, but on it, they barely had to break sweat to signify the gulf on Saturday afternoon at St James’ Park. As Magpies owner Mike Ashley watched on, for the second week running and the first home game in 16 months, the Foxes ran out 2-0 winners thanks to goals from Jamie Vardy and Harry Maguire. But something even more disturbing than the result was developing in the stands.