Newcastle United stood on the edge of a cliff at the London Stadium on Saturday, weighed down by injuries and fear of what was to come. But it is at times like that where true greatness stands out. For the first time in ten games, and just over two months, the Magpies tasted victory and completed the double over West Ham United. After weeks of seeing some of the faith in him begin to erode, from the stands and the national press, Rafa Benitez will feel vindicated right now.
Because David Moyes had lit up the Hammers’ season in just over a week, not many saw this one going the way it did. The team sheets, too, suggested risks were being taken for very little known reason on the visiting side; a midfield pairing of former West Ham man Mohamed Diame, whose popularity with fans is at an all-time low, and Henri Saivet, who was making only his third Premier League appearance despite joining Newcastle almost two years ago, meant most of the 3,000-strong travelling support will have prepared for the worst. But when Newcastle ran out 3-2 winners, with both players scoring, it looked like a stroke of genius. Christian Atsu also got on the score-sheet, cancelling out strikes from Marko Arnautovic and Andre Ayew, who also missed a penalty in the second half.
The change showed just how shrewd Benitez is tactically, but not necessarily because of the personnel. Jonjo Shelvey was serving the last of his two-game suspension and it was later confirmed that both Mikel Merino and Isaac Hayden had picked up knocks. Changing the approach was key, though; perhaps the home side were complacent and got caught up in their own belief that it would be an easy home win.
Arnautovic opened the scoring after intercepting Saivet’s loose pass six minutes in, but Newcastle dominated the play from then, pressing high and getting the ball to the front quickly. Saivet equalised with a free kick minutes later and Diame made it 2-1 after the break, but they deserve huge credit for their overall performances.
It was a completely different display from Newcastle; they were much braver in attack. Mark Noble was missing for the hosts, as was the suspended Manuel Lanzini; West Ham could be got at and Benitez understood the strengths of the team he’d picked. Saivet complimented Diame by sitting in and providing the balance, and that allowed Diame to push forward and support a front four of Atsu, Matt Ritchie, Dwight Gayle and Joselu. Having so many players on hand in attacks meant the visitors’ threatened constantly; in truth they could have been out of sight in the first half, with Gayle hitting the bar and going close again and Ritchie striking the post.
In contrast, Moyes’ tactics played into Newcastle’s hands. Having left both Andy Carroll and Javier Hernandez on the bench in favour of playing Michail Antonio in attack flanked by Ayew and Arnautovic, he will have wanted that trio to try and create space behind the Newcastle defence. That is understandable, given the lack of organisation it has suffered from over the previous nine games, but Benitez outsmarted Moyes because their midfield was suffocated with no focal point to aim at.
The Magpies only felt pressure when Carroll came on, but it was another display by captain Jamaal Lascelles that proved just how sorely missed he was when injured earlier in the campaign because he leads by example so brilliantly.
Winning around Christmas time has never been a habit for Newcastle, but this particular victory could hardly have been better timed. It is no secret that the bottom half of the table is extremely tight, as evidenced by the fact the result took Newcastle above West Ham and into 15th place. That has been about par, and Benitez continues to manage expectations ahead of the January transfer window.
Speaking of such, Pep Guardiola’s record-breaking Manchester City side are next up, at St James’ Park on Wednesday night; no team has yet beaten them and only one has managed to take anything from them at all. Defeat is likely, based on statistics at least, and it would have looked a lot worse on Newcastle had they not taken the points at the weekend. Fans can tuck into their turkey on Christmas Day knowing the alarm bells have quietened a little and the team is getting some confidence back.
Although Saivet and Diame performed well together, it is crucial that Merino and Hayden return because they offer extra protection in midfield. City do not change their system or style home or away, against anyone; Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva will be looking for pockets of space in between the lines, so it is imperative the midfield and defence stay close together. Guardiola and Benitez are good friends and know each other well, but the latter will know this is the biggest test of his preparation skills of his reign on Tyneside. After Saturday’s win at West Ham, though, there won’t be quite as many grumbles from the sidelines.
As Newcastle United head to the biggest crossroads in their history, with negotiations over the sale of the club still ongoing, they must remember Rafa Benitez is key to their progression. Some have forgotten that recently, but his role in the win at West Ham proved to be the perfect reminder. It’ll now be a much merrier Christmas on Tyneside.Published 24 Dec 2017, 19:18 IST