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History at St Mary's makes frustrating draw all the more significant for Newcastle United

509   //    16 Oct 2017, 18:22 IST

Benitez's Newcastle were held by Southampton at St Mary's
Benitez's Newcastle were held by Southampton at St Mary's

Master met apprentice at St Mary’s on Sunday afternoon, as Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle travelled to the South Coast to face Mauricio Pellegrino’s Southampton. The Argentine, who played under and began his coaching career besides Benitez at Valencia and Liverpool called, working with such a top coach ‘like a masters degree’.

In the first half of the 2-2 draw, experience schooled youth. Newcastle have not won at Southampton for 13 years, having endured some tough times before that, too, whether it be at the Saints’ current stadium or The Dell, their former home. But they went into this game in confident mood after a draw at home to Liverpool; their organisation and efficiency on the counter-attack set them up perfectly against a team well documented to be struggling to score goals this season. Benitez was able to set the pace, and at halftime, Isaac Hayden’s goal separated the teams, leaving Pellegrino with work to do.

The hosts fired back in the second half, with a brace from Manolo Gabbiadini sandwiching Ayoze Perez’s first goal of the season. Newcastle are no longer unpredictable in a negative sense; watching them, it is clear what is going to happen and Benitez’s tactics give them a chance in any game.

A combination of their defensive strength, even with the ever-reliable Ciaran Clark making way for Florian Lejeune, who made his first start since recovering from a leg injury suffered on the opening day of the campaign, and Southampton lacking confidence in front of goal meant the first half went exactly to plan.

Just days after converting his loan move from Borussia Dortmund into a permanent one, Mikel Merino was dropped from the side in favour of Hayden’s return. The Spaniard has been head and shoulders above anyone else since he came into the side, but Benitez’s logic was clear; while he and Jonjo Shelvey had performed well against Liverpool a couple of weeks ago, there was a greater risk in pairing them away from home.

Hayden was viewed as a safer option, so there is definitely some irony in the fact he was the man to open the scoring. Shelvey was the standout, keeping the ball and playing in both Christian Atsu and Matt Ritchie out wide; the lack of urgency in the home side’s play, and their inability to string passes together allowed Newcastle to dictate the game without dominating possession.

Southampton pick up the pace in the second half

Gabbiadini scored twice to earn a draw for his side
Gabbiadini scored twice to earn a draw for his side

Things changed slightly after the break. Southampton picked up the pace; Mario Lemina, their major summer signing from Juventus, began to run with the ball more and the penetration asked different questions of Newcastle.

The equaliser came five minutes into the half, too soon to be put down to any specific tactical change. Gabbiadini, seemingly played too wide and under the control of Newcastle left-back Javi Manquillo, led the defence on a merry dance before placing the ball delicately into the near post. Rob Elliot may have seen it late and the positioning of the shot was unexpected, but his reactions were nowhere near good enough and he should not have been beaten.

It looked as though, after all the hard work in once again laying the foundations for an away victory, Newcastle had shot themselves in the foot in typical style. Fortunately for Elliot, Fraser Forster was having one of the toughest afternoons of his season and it saved his blushes; just 86 seconds after the net bustled at one end, Perez fired home.

After weeks of frustrating performances, it was good to see the former Tenerife striker not only find the net, but play a more effective role in linking midfield to attack; he still does not look strong enough physically, though.

Years of hopeless travelling to the South Coast must have taken their toll, so it is quite something that the 3,500-strong away support will have come away feeling frustrated they hadn’t seen a victory.

Southampton are not what they were in an attacking sense, but they do still have good technical options. One error of judgement from Lejeune, in an otherwise solid game for the new boy, proved costly. Heading down a blind ally, Shane Long took a tumble after waiting for contact from Lejeune, who duly obliged. Gabbiadini expertly dispatched the resulting penalty. Newcastle were perhaps lucky not to have DeAndre Yedlin sent off after Kevin Friend decided against booking him for a second time despite a poor challenge on Nathan Redmond.

Shane Long won the penalty which Gabbiadini smashed past Elliot
Shane Long won the penalty which Gabbiadini smashed past Elliot

Without a shadow of a doubt, a draw would have been a great result before the game, but leading twice and staying focused for all but two moments, only to drop two points, leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. St Mary’s has been the scene for some of Newcastle’s darkest hours in recent years; in 2016, Benitez’s side lost 3-1 and it was the moment he realised just how much had to change.

Jamaal Lascelles kick-started his career on Tyneside that day, telling Daryl Janmaat that he wasn’t pulling his weight. Now club captain, he hasn’t changed, coming to blows with Mohamed Diame after a similar comment in training this week.

Actions speak louder than words, and finally, the proof is there that Newcastle are on the up. It is not just that a tactical genius is at the helm, but Rafa Benitez has led a revolution in a sense. The players care enough to bite at each other, they understand their jobs and want to impress, if they don’t, they’re not involved. Mauricio Pellegrino looks up to his former mentor and it is easy to see why; Benitez returned to St Mary’s to show just how much has changed at St James’ Park.

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Freelance European football journalist with various websites.
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