Christian Atsu embodies everything good about Rafa Benitez's Newcastle United
The early season Premier League narrative took another hard hit this weekend. Some clubs are viewed as forward thinking, well run and ambitious; West Ham United, Everton, Stoke City and Crystal Palace being four examples.
Meanwhile, Newcastle United, forever a seemingly easy target because of a boisterous fanbase, unpredictable owner and poor trophy record, are always viewed on the edge of crisis. Right now, though, everything is going right.
Each of those aforementioned teams were predicted to have good seasons after positive transfer windows, yet after five games, three of them make up the bottom four while the other sits in 13th.
Newcastle, on the other hand, the side everyone was peering at with cautious eyes, find themselves fourth after a third straight win on Saturday, against Mark Hughes’ Potters. It is the first time in three years they have achieved such a feat.
For all the talk of summer unrest at St James’ Park, with the general consensus being Rafa Benitez could resign after a failure to secure his desired transfer targets, it has been forgotten that the Spaniard is used to not getting his way and is a master of improving the players already at his disposal.
In his programme notes before the game, Benitez spoke about the willingness of his team to work together, evidenced by their improvement in form, while he was at home recovering from corrective Hernia surgery.
But he returned to the dugout for the visit of Stoke, and one performance in particular which showed Benitez’s coaching abilities came from Christian Atsu.
The Ghana international was rather taken for granted when he made his loan move from Chelsea permanent for just £6.7million in the summer.
Having only shown glimpses of his capabilities in the Championship last season, he didn’t get the fans that excited, but now he is a vital part of the setup. It was his first-half goal that set the ball rolling in the 2-1 victory.
Atsu originally arrived at Newcastle on his last chance saloon. His Chelsea career was as good as over, with over 30 other players out on loan, and he had failed to shine in previous loan spells at Everton, Malaga and Bournemouth.
It was late on in the summer window of 2016, and he did add some much-needed pace and width to the team.
His failure to take games by the scruff of the neck on a regular basis called into question whether the winger was suited to the English game, but Benitez saw something in him; eventually, he’d prove more suited to the Premier League, where he’d be afforded more space to run into.
For a natural-born wide man, Atsu has developed a lot of intelligence in terms of when to come infield. He does not cut inside with the ball per se, instead making the same direct runs in more central areas, or holding his position at the back post, with the latter leading to his goal on Saturday.
The sheer willpower to get in front of the defender and on the end of Matt Ritchie’s pinpoint cross was proof of Benitez’s aims this season.
In the second half, he burst through on goal, only to be brought down by Kurt Zouma; claims for a penalty were waved away as replays showed the Frenchman got a foot on the ball.
Stoke boss Hughes said after the game his side needed a “different mindset” to face Newcastle because they hadn’t been used to the amount of possession they received.
He admitted they played into the hosts’ hands by not keeping the ball well enough, and after a bright start to the game, as Newcastle backed off, it all changed after Atsu’s goal as they began to force the issue.
One constant message throughout Benitez’s spell in charge has been the need to change the culture around the club.
There was no winning mentality, there is now, there was no organisation, there is now, and instead of a selfish outlook of players who had been sold the club as a stepping-stone, there is a real togetherness in the squad.
Players only have Newcastle United on their minds; rather than giving up at a goal down, it is all about sticking together, staying organised and carrying out instructions.
Despite missing two or three golden opportunities at 1-0, Newcastle conceded to a brilliant Xherdan Shaqiri strike.
In years gone by, their heads would have dropped and they’d have surrendered, hoping to hold out for a draw.
But this squad is different, weathering the storm that followed, regaining control and winning the game thanks to another bullet Jamaal Lascelles header from Ritchie’s corner, his third consecutive assist.
Benitez then spoke of that team ethic after the game: “The main thing was the togetherness, the work rate and character of the team. They have a connection with the fans; they want to stay, want to fight, want to defend the black and white shirt. They are doing that.”
Such words show why those predictions at the start of the season were so short-sighted. Of course, it is still early days, but the criticism in recent times has been that Newcastle have had the quality but lacked the heart and passion.
Now, though they may not have many stars in their team, everyone is working towards the same goal.
As someone with a point to prove to all his critics, Christian Atsu represents this quality better than most. It is no surprise; finally, he is thriving in consistently showing his undoubted talent.