West Ham have shown why Newcastle need not yet panic in their relegation battle
As Aleksandar Mitrovic rounded West Ham goalkeeper Joe Hart to make it 3-0 and wrap up Newcastle United’s first victory of the season, it looked like Rafa Benitez had found the answer.
The Magpies had started the season slowly after failing to secure many of their main summer transfer targets; defeat could have had dire consequences, but Rafa's tactical superiority over Slaven Bilic won that particular day. Little did he, or the 52,000 strong St James’ Park crowd, know then, the pre-game outlook would be exactly the same when the sides next met.
That win sparked a run of three in a row, which then became mixed in with some good draws. Newcastle had punched above their weight and, by the end of October following another win over Crystal Palace, they sat in the top six having ever so briefly flirted with a Champions League spot.
No wins and just one point in nine games since, though, have ignited the crisis many were predicting before the Hammers came to town. Benitez, who remains on good terms with the hierarchy at the London Stadium despite eventually rejecting their advances in favour of Real Madrid in 2015, needs a win just as much as he did four months ago, if not more.
Newcastle now sit in 18th place, though they did put in a good showing at the Emirates Stadium last week. Bilic will not be on the other side in the Capital this weekend; instead, it will be David Moyes, whom Benitez faced many times on Merseyside when he managed Liverpool and the Scot was in charge of Everton.
Bilic looked tired and all but defeated on a late summer afternoon on Tyneside, and though results improved for a short time, he never truly escaped a sad ending to the cult hero-fan relationship, which spanned over three decades.
After a 4-1 defeat to Liverpool, he was sacked in November. Moyes’ appointment was initially ridiculed after he failed dismally to keep Sunderland afloat last season, but he certainly has made an impact; now Newcastle are facing a heavy tide.
They had gone back to basics before that, but a home win over Chelsea two weeks ago turned their revival up a notch. It came after they almost snatched a point at Manchester City; a draw against Arsenal followed, as did a comprehensive 3-0 win over Stoke City. They will certainly fancy their chances on Saturday.
This year, there has been a real increase in struggling teams feeling the pressure and changing their manager in the hope of sparking form similar to West Ham’s. Crystal Palace were the first, in record time, replacing Frank de Boer with Roy Hodgson after just four games; Everton, West Brom and Leicester have all followed suit.
Swansea are the latest to try it; relieving Paul Clement of his duties on Wednesday. The Swans are bottom of the league and looked devoid of quality and ideas; they will hope for a similar turn of events that has helped most of these teams.
Murmurs of the same happening to Benitez have been swiftly shut down; with it patently clear he is still the future of Newcastle United, intent on building the club in his image. West Ham’s sudden confidence boost does not necessarily prove managerial musical chairs is the answer, but it does show how easy it is to turn the outlook of a season on its head.
Two weeks ago, Newcastle would have relished their first trip to the former Olympic Park, whereas now there is a sense of trepidation. That in itself is a lesson not to panic, to trust in Benitez despite some pundits manipulating facts to blame him for issues he cannot control.
One huge boost for Newcastle is that West Ham’s chief creator, Manuel Lanzini, became only the second player ever to be retrospectively banned for diving in the Stoke game.
He’ll now serve a suspension, starting this weekend, and it will be a real test for Moyes to make sure the home side are not blunted too badly by his absence. Marko Arnautovic appears to have finally found his feet, and motivation; he will undoubtedly be out to cause problems.
Team selections are always subjective, and Benitez is a man who likes to rotate at the best of times, let alone at this incredibly busy stage of the season. Jonjo Shelvey will miss the trip to his boyhood club as he serves the final game of his suspension, though there are real doubts as to whether he will ever play for the club again, as Benitez doesn’t fully trust him.
Mitrovic scored the third in the August victory, but a retrospective ban received for a flailing elbow in that game may have eroded the trust in him from the manager completely. He has barely featured since, even with the team desperate for goals. Joselu, and the more prolific Dwight Gayle are ahead of him in the pecking order.
With West Ham the first reverse fixture of the campaign, it is a sign Newcastle’s season has gone full circle. Three points at St James’ Park kickstarted an early surge up the table; the bright lights of Europe may have been dreamt of then, but a repeat would ease fears of a real disaster heading into the New Year and, more importantly, the January transfer window.