The New Year breeds new hope across the world in all walks of life, and in Newcastle, there is only one thing on most people’s minds. Over 3,000 Magpies fans flocked to Stoke City’s Bet365 Stadium on the first day of 2018; the song that reverberated most out of the away end was: “We’re having a party when Ashley sells the club”.
Obtaining three points was the first and most important task of this year and Rafa Benitez proved he is a tactical genius. His approach has been open to criticism in recent weeks, but it was spot on in the Potteries, where his team left on Monday evening in 13th place, four points above the relegation zone, after a 1-0 win. It was also the first time they had grabbed successive Premier League victories on the road since November 2014.
Ayoze Perez’s second goal of the campaign proved the difference in the second half, and Karl Darlow, still standing in for the injured Rob Elliot, played an equally important role with a string of important saves. Now the pressure has eased slightly, Benitez can concentrate on strengthening in the January transfer window.
When Mike Ashley put the club up for sale, it was clear he wanted to get out as soon as he could; by Christmas, in fact. Movement has not been as swift as that and perhaps that has had an adverse effect on the team’s performance on the pitch; the fact Ashley is still around means Benitez’s nightmare scenario has played out.
Amanda Staveley and PCP Capital remain interested, but the Spaniard is relying on a man he does not trust, someone he claims didn’t come through on promises last summer, to supply him with adequate funds to strengthen a squad severely lacking in quality. Once again, two lists have been drawn up, and the unnecessary uncertainty means Benitez is once again stabbing in the dark.
Victory over Stoke does not change that, but it does prove once again that Benitez is the only indispensable person at the club right now. Having been dealt a poor hand in the summer, he will likely expect another in the coming weeks, but his understanding of what it takes to win a football match was the difference again.
Fans who were critical of his team selection at West Ham hadn’t learnt their lesson; his ‘strongest’ side on paper had failed dismally against Brighton on Saturday, but that didn’t stop the moaning and groaning when Christian Atsu lined up alongside Perez up front, with joint top scorers Joselu and Dwight Gayle on the bench.
It was the unpredictability of Newcastle’s formation that gave them the upper hand early on. Atsu and Perez found space both in front of and behind the Stoke defence; Jacob Murphy, Matt Ritchie and DeAndre Yedlin were a constant threat on the counter.
Their first-half dominance deserved a lot more than heading into the break level, but failure to put chances away has been a real issue all season and Benitez will see that as a major area to improve on this month.
Perez’s goal was crucial, but consistently frustrating performances earlier in the season, and the fact he only has two goals to his name means the 24-year-old is a long way from being the answer to the problems in attack.
Far too often has he been bullied off the ball, and although he works hard, he does not produce many moments of note during a game. The fluidity of the system helped him on Monday, because it allowed him to get into different positions and run with the ball. His goal came from a swift counter-attack, founded and set up by Murphy, but rarely will Perez get the level of space he needs to thrive.
On this particular day, Stoke’s early nerves set the tone for them; they lacked intensity across the pitch despite Mark Hughes admitting he rested players at Chelsea on Saturday, with this game in mind.
Perez is neither strong nor consistent enough to play up front or just in behind as the games become more and more vital; Benitez will want attacking reinforcements as soon as possible, especially if wantaway striker Aleksandar Mitrovic departs.
The situation is very similar for the other hero at Stoke, Darlow. Benitez made no bones about the fact he wanted a top quality goalkeeper in the summer; Pepe Reina, whom he signed at both Liverpool and Napoli, was heavily linked back then.
There is no suggestion Benitez has given up hope of signing a new goalkeeper and it is obvious he has trust issues with both Darlow and Elliot. The former spent most of last season’s successful Championship campaign as number one, only to be usurped by Elliot this term.
Individual errors have cost both over the course of their time working with Benitez and they will not be outweighed, even if they put in performances like Darlow did on Monday.
Whatever his plans, though, Rafa Benitez will not be happy to see Mike Ashley still at the helm at Newcastle United. It is becoming increasingly clear by the day that the club won’t progress until the takeover is sorted, but the recent results away from home, courtesy of Benitez, mean that is more likely to happen soon.
The safer Newcastle look, the less likely Amanda Staveley is to demand the relegation clause currently holding up the deal. It is also true that Benitez needs both money and clarity to continue his good work on Tyneside.