Rafa Benitez must change things but Newcastle can build momentum in busy winter
To some, winter football in England is a curse, but Newcastle United must view it as a blessing. If it wasn’t already clear, the next few weeks will be a long, hard slog for the Magpies, it certainly is now. Saturday’s 3-0 defeat at home to Watford was the fourth in a row and seventh of the campaign in just 13 games, but it felt different. The gulf in class between the two sides showed exactly how tough this season will be if Newcastle do not get the basics right.
Marco Silva’s side have an obvious attacking identity; they play with such energy and verve in the final third. Like most games this season, it would be unrealistic to expect this Newcastle squad to go toe-to-toe with them, even at St James’ Park. Just like every game before and every game after, Rafa Benitez will have expected his side to work hard and keep the shape and the organisation that had become such a feature in the early weeks. They didn’t do that and they were punished; had Watford been more efficient in front of goal, it would have been much worse. It was a worrying sight for another 52,000-strong crowd to see.
There is no doubting Newcastle lack the quality to compete with the majority of Premier League teams right now, let alone one looking as accomplished as the Hornets. But Benitez is more than a month away from legally being able to strengthen his squad, let alone financially. Takeover talk is not a distraction for the manager, but a positive outcome is becoming more crucial by the day; it is clear to see now why a reported relegation clause is a stumbling block between Mike Ashley and PCP Capital.
Eight games is a more important timescale, starting with a trip to face West Brom on Tuesday night. The Baggies’ situation is yet more proof of just how ruthless the Premier League is; after finishing tenth last year, they sacked Tony Pulis after a poor end to the campaign and a run of 10 games without a win. That may have continued at Tottenham on Saturday, but they gave a great account of themselves in the 1-1 draw at Wembley, meaning it will likely be a tougher game than it looked a fortnight ago.
Gary Megson should still be in temporary charge, but every Newcastle fan’s favourite Alan Pardew is expected to takeover; if he is in the dugout, it would certainly add more fuel to an already simmering situation on Tyneside.
Most concerning is the Watford defeat was the latest to prove the bedrock of the early form this season has dissolved. In September, Newcastle beat Stoke City 2-1 at St James’ Park to reach a Champions League place; the win over Crystal Palace just over a month ago cemented a top half position. Both results, and a number of others, were not down to superior quality, but the dogged determination of players evidently bursting with pride for their manager.
Now, though, they are 14th and sliding without much to grip onto; the trap door is opening quickly. Nine goals have been conceded in the last four games, one more than in the previous nine. Something needs to change.
Benitez’s relationship with the fans is well documented to be the main reason he is still at the club despite numerous reasons for him to walk away. There were some murmurs of frustration amid the hoards of supporters on Saturday. Patience has been the buzzword of the campaign so far and it will remain the same until May, but it is becoming clear changes are desperately needed before Tuesday’s game in the West Midlands.
After years of stale, careless stability, it has been nice to see Benitez brand of calming, organised structure. But with that, and the lack of unpredictability comes an ease for opposing managers to work out how to set up against his side. Marco Silva is sought after for a reason and he clearly did his homework, boldly hitting Newcastle hard in the wide areas; DeAndre Yedlin was a particular target.
The United States international has the pace to get himself out of the occasional positional mishap, but the pressure seemed relentless and, hung out to dry by winger Matt Ritchie’s failure to help him, Yedlin scored an own goal and in part responsible for the other two.
In his toughest time as Newcastle boss, Benitez deserves understanding from fans. He may appear slow on the uptake when it comes to changing the team both for and during a game, but the options he has to choose from are slim at best right now. All managers say injuries are never an excuse, but this is just because they don’t want to be caught passing blame; any manager would miss their three most in-form players, and Benitez is no different.
Captain Jamaal Lascelles’ absence shows just how much this team lacks leaders elsewhere on the pitch; Christian Atsu’s injury means he can’t bring a spark and, although Mikel Merino was fit enough for the bench, starting him would have been risky with so many games on the horizon. Isaac Hayden was also suspended and will return in midweek.
There is certainly logic in Benitez’s choices, more than he gets credit for. The two most contentious decisions on Saturday were the inclusions of Mohamed Diame and Joselu, but there were very few other options in midfield and, despite a clamour for Aleksandar Mitrovic to be given more of a chance, he hasn’t done much more than the Spaniard. It may be time Joselu was given a rest; his confidence looks on the floor and he doesn’t add anything to the attack, but it is misguided to suggest Mitrovic is guaranteed to offer any more.
Newcastle could hardly be coming into a crucial part of the season in worse shape and the pressure will soon be a tipping point. Eight games in such a small amount of time means the Premier League table will look very different in the New Year; but the Magpies are still only two points behind ‘in-form’ Brighton, who sit ninth. With a few changes, starting on Tuesday, they can use this busy period to lighten up a dark time.