Newcastle United finally have the array of wingers they always wanted
It was supposed to lift the mood, but in the end, it only made things worse. Newcastle United were never going to prioritise the cup competitions this season and, for once, that seemed the appropriate route to take. Following promotion to the Premier League, the competitions usually seen as their only shot at glory were seen as a distraction. This season is all about putting building blocks in place and avoiding a repeat of two years ago and relegation to the Championship.
Yet, the manner of the Carabao Cup exit to Nottingham Forest on Wednesday night left a bitter taste in the mouth. Looking at the bigger picture, in the aftermath of two defeats from two in the league and the realisation it will be a long, hard season on Tyneside, losing in itself was not the biggest disaster. But having led the game after just two minutes and dominated possession throughout, failing to put Forest away and losing 3-2 in extra time was disappointing.
Rafa Benitez said after the game that making as many changes as he did was necessary given how thick and fast Premier League games were coming. Youngsters Dan Barlasar and Jamie Sterry started, but most intriguing was the selection of a number of transfer-listed players as if Benitez was yet again making a point of how lacking in depth his squad is.
Creativity and penetration were clearly lacking, particularly as the game wore on. But one positive, looking forward, is how Newcastle seem to have found the right balance out wide. Having billed themselves as a counter attacking team for a number of years, most curiously the options at various managers’ disposal did not support that notion. A lack of pacey, direct players meant when they should have been playing at a high intensity and stretching the pitch; far too often they were slow in the build up and easy to contain, because they didn’t have any proper wingers to call upon.
Alan Pardew’s reign was a prime example of this. Moussa Sissoko, predominantly a central midfielder, Yoan Gouffran, a former striker and Hatem Ben Arfa, who was at his best on the left of attacking trio all played on the wing but never utilised their positions to the desired effect because their roles did not play to their strengths. Benitez has been frustrated in the transfer window, but he has still been able to build a team with a more recognisable identity than any other manager in recent history at St James’ Park.
Two of the brightest sparks on a dark night were wingers Rolando Aarons and Jacob Murphy, who both looked to make things happen whenever they touched the ball. Pace is one thing, but a willingness and freedom to make direct runs are what made them so exciting and, alongside Christian Atsu, who was not involved, and Matt Ritchie, Benitez has four genuine wide players who all create healthy competition for one another and offer different things to the team.
Ritchie, for example, does not possess the blistering pace of the other three, but has perhaps more technical ability and is more adept in front of goal. Aarons also proved he has something in his locker with a sublime long-range equaliser on the stroke of half time.
In the remaining days of the window, among a number of other priorities is a creative midfielder, but Benitez has played Ritchie in behind the striker at times and it has worked well. Aarons, Atsu and Murphy have the bravery and belief to take people on, which Sissoko always looked very uncomfortable doing despite his considerable size and strength when on the right-hand side under Pardew, John Carver and Benitez’s predecessor Steve McClaren.
Playing at a high speed implies purpose in the play, and that is where Newcastle have lacked at times, including on Wednesday. Far too often was the idea to hit the ball long to Aleksandar Mitrovic up front, who opened the scoring in just two minutes, or play it for Murphy or Aarons to run onto. It worked to a certain extent, certainly better than it has done when there was little conviction out wide previously, but an intelligent playmaker was the missing link. Jonjo Shelvey is still completing a three-match ban and his presence has been sorely missed, but Benitez’s gameplan will become much clearer when he returns and the season progresses.
Ritchie has the footballing brain that perhaps Mohammed Diame, by way of an example, lacks. There is a reason the Senegalese midfielder is so much better deeper in midfield rather than at number ten, because his greatest asset is his energy, not his ability to read the game or play a pass. Newcastle have looked bereft of ideas so far this season, but rather than not having the right personnel out wide as in previous years, it is because those players have not yet been unlocked. Eventually, that will happen.
Losing to Nottingham Forest was more an issue in terms of pride than actually exiting another cup competition. Rafa Benitez used the game as an opportunity to rest players, make further points on transfers and perhaps put others in the shop window. Finding positives in it is tough, but at least now Newcastle look like a counter attacking team built for that purpose.