What do we really expect to happen now?
What can Rafa Benitez really do?
These are the only questions which matter for the next 10 games.
As I write this, on the afternoon before we play the league leaders Leicester City, those questions hang heavy in the air and without answer, so far. This is one of those rare occasions where the excitement and fear are equally matched by the unknown quantity which is Newcastle United in the next ten games.
There has been a feeling amongst some supporters and sections of the media that the Newcastle players aren’t as bad as performances suggest, some have even ventured that our squad has more talent than Leicester’s squad, it is certainly much more expensive, but does this have any basis in fact?
Can we really believe that lack of motivation, poor tactics and a general malaise from working under the Wally with the Brolly, account for the dross on the pitch?
Surely a squad containing the Dutch league’splayer of the season, two England internationals, a French International and other big money, big reputation players should not be in danger of relegation?
Surely it has to be the fault of the coaching, or the culture of the club? Well, let’s hope so shall we.
The reality is that Rafa Benitez has a huge task ahead of him, we keep seeing the comparisons to the situation when Alan Shearer took over for his ill-fated spell in charge, but perhaps a more apt comparison would be the situation which Sir Bobby Robson found when he came into the club.
At the time we were rock bottom of the league, playing with no confidence and confounding opinion of all football commentators, who rightly pointed out that our squad should not be where it was.
Bobby made some very simple changes, famously getting Shearer to stop playing with his back to goal to get his scoring touch back, and got quick results. Whether you believe Rafa can make similar simple adjustments depends on whether you think the problems have most of their roots in the standard of the players at the club, or the set up in which they play.
Looking at our better players, I do believe that there are quick wins to be had in certain areas of the pitch, holding the defensive line rather than carrying the ball out from the back and having a defensive midfielder whose sole responsibility is to close the space in front of the back four will make us much more solid.
Allowing Shelvey the range to patrol the entire middle of the park and get on the ball as much as possible would make us move the ball quicker in possession. Thus letting Wijnaldum roam behind the striker(s) giving support, by ghosting in to press the opposition defence will create space up top as he pulls defenders out of position.
Then using Townsend, or at a push Sissoko, as the outlet when we’re under pressure will make us more effective on the break. Small adjustments for potentially big reward.
There have been issues with the way the team has been set up for a long time now, consecutive coaches have kept faith with a system for which we clearly don’t have the players and in turn the players have become ineffective in doing even the most simple things.
Rafa Benitez needs to tear up the blueprint and let the players do what should come naturally to them, play to their strengths rather than limiting their strengths in a rigid system, which certainly looks to have curtailed the abilities of some of the squad.
For me, we do need to take a leaf of Leicester’s book as we clearly do not have the squad to play a possession game. We need to be solid at the back, compact in the middle of the park and fast on the break in order to pick teams off. The trade-off being that this should not mean surrendering possession in order to activate our game plan as McClaren did away at Everton.
What it actually means is that you try to move the ball forwards quickly and accurately, keeping pressure on the opposition defence and not letting them build from the back, in a way it does almost negate much of the midfield play but at the moment it is what is required.
I would advise anyone to really watch how Leicester play tonight, have a look at how long the ball spends in the middle of the park and I guarantee you that the answer is not long at all.
Leicester move the ball forwards quickly and much of the time it comes straight back, but because their defence isn’t set up for much adventure they can usually win the ball back quite simply and move it forwards once again.
This is how we should be playing, with the small caveat that Shelvey needs to be the one moving the ball with directness and accuracy.
This, I believe, is how we can avoid the drop. This is how can get our confidence back and this is how our players can rediscover what it means to enjoy their football again.