Takeover talk can't lift Newcastle as reality bites against Everton
On a cold, frosty December evening at St James’ Park, Newcastle United fans flocked in their numbers.
They would have been warmed up by some good news from earlier in the day as news broke earlier in the day that Amanda Staveley’s proposed takeover of the club has gone a step further. These reports even said she could usurp Mike Ashley as early as next week.
That night, though, reality bit like the freezing wind as Everton became the latest team to snatch three points from the Magpies grasp.
Perhaps that is not an eloquent description of the game because it implies the home side were unlucky, which they definitely weren’t.
They had chances in both halves; Matt Ritchie and Mikel Merino hit the woodwork before the break and Mohamed Diame failed to stab home a Florian Lejeune header but, like almost all of the previous five games, the defeat was completely self-inflicted.
After a spell of early home dominance, Everton struck on 27 minutes when Karl Darlow spilled Aaron Lennon's seemingly innocuous header and Wayne Rooney, one of Newcastle’s many scourges over the years, pounced.
It was the former England captain’s 15th goal against the Magpies; the most he's scored against any opponent in his career.
Having seen that taking the lead didn’t help in their previous two games against Chelsea and Leicester, Newcastle suddenly had to wrestle their way back into the game.
Sam Allardyce (who so loves to torment the club from which he was sacked after just 8 months) knew this, gradually taking the life out of the game from the moment the points became his to lose.
Such is the lack of confidence and attacking quality in the Newcastle side, it almost doesn’t matter who the opponent is; going behind, particularly in the first half, means psychologically the game is all but lost for Rafa Benitez’s men.
Anxiety on Tyneside is palpable right now and no one, not even Benitez, can escape the wrath of some fans.
A banner in the Gallowgate End, which has become engulfed by a flags movement ever since the manager breathed fresh life into the club 18 months ago in a bid to freshen up the atmosphere, read: “Estamos Contigo (“We Are With You”).
At the full-time whistle, though, pockets of boos could be heard around the ground; some had choice words for Benitez as he walked down the tunnel. The old feeling of discontent, a staple of the Mike Ashley era, has returned even as his exit appears to have been fast-tracked.
The prospective buyers, PCP Capital, led by Staveley, are not 100% put off by the relegation battle, but it has had a lingering effect on negotiations.
Understandably, given recent results and performances, they are reluctant to pay full price for a team who could well be in the Championship next season, offering unwanted problems for Ashley who seems desperate to walk away.
While Benitez doesn’t yet know the budget he’ll get to work with in January, it is understood money will be spent.
Refusing to do so now would either show complete faith in a squad devoid of confidence, a lack of understanding of the situation or just plain apathy.
Ashley has been accused of the latter two many times over the last decade, but with a way out of the club and, crucially, a profit on the sum he initially paid to acquire the club at least, even he will not want to risk a third relegation scuppering everything.
Attention will soon turn to potential incomings, but some may want to see outgoings first. Diame’s constant inclusion in the team, particularly in the number 10 is a complete mystery.
Rarely has he shown anything in a Newcastle shirt, and his confidence appears even lower than most of his teammates. Benitez’s mistrust of players with ill-discipline, like Jonjo Shelvey, was vindicated when the English midfielder, who had spent time out of the side recently, was sent off in stoppage time.
He’ll now miss Saturday’s trip to Arsenal, turning an already steep hill into a mountain.
Benitez is far from blameless for the current plight. Newcastle is competing in spells of games, doing enough to show they can be a threat, without following through.
His team selections have been questionable, but he has tried two systems in a bid to attack games, playing 4-4-2 with Dwight Gayle, now looking like the only real positive for Newcastle, and Joselu up front, and 4-2-3-1, to stay more compact in defence and midfield.
Neither has worked because tactics are constantly undermined by individual errors.
In reality, Benitez can come up with any idea he wants to spark a change, but his hands are tied. There aren’t many options he hasn’t already tried; nothing is screaming out to him and no one is making a case from the bench.
The fact that a Champions League winning manager, the man adored by so many, is struggling to impact the squad and its form, is proof of the depth of the issues at Newcastle United.
Thanks to Benitez, the attitude of the squad has changed completely since he arrived. But as he warned so vehemently in the summer, there is only so far his game management and tactics will go.
The team has everything but sufficient quality and the only way out is to improve it by spending; even though that guarantees nothing.
Following the trip to the Emirates Stadium on Saturday, Newcastle then heads to a resurgent West Ham; the Magpies’ record in London is nothing short of atrocious, but they must pick up something or face being in the bottom three by the time Manchester City come to town on the 27th.
The darkness on Tyneside may be temporary with the takeover on the brink, but that hasn’t stopped the alarm bells ringing.