The public opinion of Newcastle United compared to the majority of their Premier League relegation rivals is rather different. Fans are often lambasted for expecting too much of their team too soon, demanding success, not to mention stylish football; yet against Pep Guardiola’s record-breaking Manchester City side at St James’ Park on Wednesday night, it is they who accepted the likely outcome with good grace, while pundits stuck the knife into the Magpies for their approach.
Guardiola’s side are no ordinary league leaders; they are record breakers, now on a run of 18 straight league wins, an English record, and one behind the European feat, which Guardiola’s Bayern Munich hold.
They have now played every team once, including the rest of the ‘big six’, and only Everton have managed to take any points from them at all; that came in their first home game of the season. Since then, they have been imperious; more indestructible and dangerous than any team Newcastle have faced before.
Rafa Benitez defended deep, just like Huddersfield, Southampton and West Ham did in games that ran City close; only more was expected of his team because they have a history of attacking at home. Doing just that would have resulted in a hefty loss because the visitors carved chances out anyway; the relegation battle could come down to goal difference.
Make no mistake, it wasn’t pretty to watch, and early on it felt as though the approach was damage limitation. During the first half an hour, Joselu, the main striker on the night, barely reached the halfway line. Newcastle didn’t even throw a jab until Raheem Sterling’s 17th goal of the season opened the scoring on 31 minutes. It turned out to be the only goal, too, as the visitors won 1-0.
Benitez knew, with Brighton, Stoke and Swansea to come in the Premier League, there were bigger fish to fry. He rested a number of his key players, with Matt Ritchie, Dwight Gayle, Christian Atsu and Mikel Merino all on the bench. It could be argued that the failings of Sergio Agüero was what kept the score down at halftime; nevertheless, the introduction of Gayle and Atsu after the break proved Newcastle were willing to go for it late on, when there would be a smaller window for City to reply in if they equalised.
It almost worked, too; Gayle saw a header whistle past Ederson’s post in the closing stages. It was the closest they had come to a goal since Nicolas Otamendi headed Rolando Aarons’ chip off the line moments after City went ahead.
Guardiola was heavily criticised and often mocked last season for his appraisal of the Premier League; he has said it is the most defensive division he has ever coached in. Originally, he was told about the competitive nature of English football, how every team has a different approach week by week; yet the fear factor when his City come to play, and their ability not to change their style in any condition, makes it very hard to do anything else other than sit deep against them.
It is true that the home crowd, another 52,000 sell out, wanted to get involved early on in the game but were unable because there was little to get excited about, but they were certainly on board towards the end, proving Benitez right in the way he went into the game. It could be said it is a sad indictment of the current state of English football that teams cower against the bigger sides these days, even at home. In reality, though, special precautions must be put in place to stop this Manchester City team, because there is literally no inspiration that can be taken from direct rivals in terms of beating them. Guardiola is a genius, and whether he likes it or not, this is the outcome of his ideology.
Brighton are next up on Saturday for the Magpies and the games come thick and fast. Chris Hughton, the Seagulls boss, will undoubtedly get a warm reception from the home fans, but never has it been more crucial for his record of not winning at St James’ Park since being sacked as manager seven years ago to remain intact. Gayle, Ritchie, Atsu and Merino are all likely to come back into the side; perhaps fans will be more expectant of a fast start then. Benitez does encourage his teams to press early on usually, though.
While Aleksandar Mitrovic will not feature anyway through injury, Newcastle are coming to terms with the possibility of losing the Serbian striker in January. After giving an interview in his homeland lamenting his lack of first-team opportunities, it is the first time Mitrovic has spoken publicly about departing. It does say a lot that, despite Newcastle’s desperate need for goals, the 23-year-old has been left as an unused substitute at best for most of this season. Benitez doesn’t trust him to stay disciplined, and his performances when in the team have not convinced him the risk is worth it.
If he moves next month, he will likely find his feet elsewhere and go on to fulfil his potential, but Newcastle shouldn’t regret letting him go because it has been clear for some time that it is a case of the right club, wrong time for him on Tyneside.
Overall, the outlook for Newcastle is a positive one after Wednesday’s narrow defeat to Manchester City. They didn’t lie down, they had a plan to grow into the game and it almost worked; the Brighton game is fast approaching but there should be a confident buzz around the camp despite a fifth consecutive home loss.