Spirited. The word which echoed in the hearts of every NUFC fan to see their team battle it out against the table toppers. And to see their (Leicester’s) extraordinary pair of mavericks non-existent for long stretches in a closely fought 94 mins at their home.
But Rafa Benitez has a humongous task on his hands.
Nine games to go, close to the bottom of the premier league and to the top of the injury league, lack of goal scorers, bigger lack of goal creators. Shaky defenders, forwards with low self-belief, players bought in January asked to be saviors, and too many “top” players with nothing less than Champions League in their minds. Not an ideal situation, especially considering that almost 8 out of the 11 may relate little to the pride of Newcastle staying in the premier league.
But then, as much as we have seen of Rafa till date, he would not have come on board for 10 games. Not for the fat joining bonus cheque, or for the huge incentive he would have been promised if he kept us afloat. Rafa was approached even before he joined Real Madrid and we ‘had’ to hire Steve McClaren. But then it was between Real and us. So.
But coming back to my point, Rafa is not here for the money. He sees his next project in Newcastle. His next glory. His next Liverpool. And somewhere I get the hint that Mike Ashley is now ready to give a Manager his ‘freedom to operate’.
The plan to get Newcastle, the business, settle down as a self-sufficient cash-generating machine is near complete, and although it seems a little too late to believe, I think he has given the green light to build Newcastle, the football club.
And thus, Rafa has started on his project. I can go on writing paeans on what transformations he can bring about in our team when we start next season in the Premier League, but I will reserve those for the summer break. It is right here and right now, the next nine games, is where he must be focusing all his energy.
Let’s help him. I’m sure the fans, home and away, will come out roaring as the 12th man. I have no doubts of that. We, the keyboard warriors, will have to do our share.
This is what Rafa needs to see and take action on before the end of the season.
Firstly, the formation
I know 4-2-3-1 is close to Rafa’s heart – but it was a different era and a different setup. And though it has worked wonders for him in the past, it has been horrid for Newcastle.
Time to change that. Time to get two strikers up-top, with a no. 10 behind and two wingers to drive on those curving crosses. Cisse is back, Riviere’s been training for long, Perez must have had a real boost with Rafa. We got a striker on loan, remember? Anyone to partner Mitrovic will do. Even two, one for each half!
Secondly, the conspicuous omission of Siem de Jong
I am a big believer in the Dutchman’s abilities and his forward-minded game. And this has been a big negative in our past regimes. Time to give a run at the no. 10 spot, or even as the second striker.
He may be slow but his calmness in passing and his ability in finding the right pass with a single touch is what we need in the final third of pitch.
Wijnaldum is good but he takes too much time on the ball – to turn, to get his head up, to find his outlet – and loses possession far too much to add to our misfortunes.
Next, the flying wingbacks
Absolute crackdown there IMHO. Janmaat may be angry and undisciplined in the process, but the message has to be drilled into the back four. They should be compact, close, getting those triangles working to get the ball to Shelvey. I was aghast to see Janmaat and Taylor and Lascelles taking the ball from Shelvey and looking to press ahead. Absolute no.
Fourthly, the Barcelona game
Without a doubt. Great to hear Patrick Kluivert is interested in getting on Rafa’s (coaching) team to get the strikers going. Good idea, Rafa should latch onto that and be on the phone to Patrick already.
And not only the two strikers, but Sissoko, De Jong, Wijnaldum, Townsend and Shelvey, whoever gets in a good enough position to take the shot himself, take it.
Next season we can have the one-twos and the back-flick through balls and the lay-offs, not for the final nine games. Drill ownership into the attacking players, tell them they need to score the winning goal, not provide the winning assist.
And finally, playing the favourites
If Sissoko is struggling, which he does in eight out of 10 matches and for 75 out of the 90 minutes of the pitch, why does he get a guaranteed place in the playing 11 every time?
Why does Mitrovic need to start every game just because we shelled out £12m for his raw talents?
Why must Wijnaldum be expected to score that winning goal every game, even after such horrendous away form?
Change it around, maybe refer to my Home and Away blueprint, but ready those Plan Bs and Plan Cs if these ‘favourites’ do struggle on any given day.
Well it will not be just nine days, it will be the clichéd ‘cup finals’ for these last nine outings.
And the goal is very clear, get one point more than Sunderland and Norwich after these nine games. Beyond which heralds the fantastic TV deal, money for major rebuilding.
A silverware hungry fanbase – but only wishing for exciting ambitious football – and the chance to become folklore at a place which loves its legends.
Worth every bit, Rafa. We are with you. HWTL.
Rishiraj Lahiri (Now from New Delhi after having moved 1,336 miles from Bangalore)
If not for the wonderful Black-and-white and Alan Shearer, I would have never got stuck with Newcastle. But then I fell in love at first sight, and the affair continues…. long distance….And one day, I will be there at SJP and I will cheer you on lads…
You can follow the author on Titter @rishirajlahiri
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