To a backdrop of bookies even offering odds on Newcastle going through the season unbeaten, it didn’t take long for Rafa Benitez to experience his first defeat in the second tier of English football.
Fulham were almost relegated last time out, have lost their best two players who scored 40 goals between them last season, and have tried to plug the gaps with cut price buys and the odd free transfer.
Despite this, they won the game and as the match developed, actually looked the better team in the final stages.
However, the start of the game saw Newcastle with almost total domination of the ball and looking like the home team, with Fulham very wary/nervous up against the short-priced favourites.
That advantage wasn’t built on and despite having plenty of possession, there was little creativity and very few chances created. You could almost sense what was going to happen, as Fulham then hit Newcastle with the sucker punch just before half-time and the rest was history.
Safe to say that most Newcastle fans wouldn’t have picked the same team Rafa Benitez did, most supporters would not have picked all three of Hayden, Anita and Colback, three central midfielders who aren’t going to create and/or score many goals.
No doubt plenty of fans would have gone for players such as Shelvey and Aarons, taken more of a risk.
I have to say that if Sir Bobby Robson or Kevin Keegan had been manager on Friday night then I have no doubt Newcastle would have won.
That isn’t a slur on Rafa Benitez, just a belief that Sir Bobby and KK would have picked a far more attacking team and formation, the gone for the jugular against an opposition who were clearly nervous of the opposition. Fulham might still have scored a goal but I fancy Newcastle would have had three or four of their own.
It is very much the tendency these days for the media to build their post-match reports of matches based purely on the scoreline, rewriting history.
This was the case post-Friday night, Newcastle didn’t show enough ambition but Rafa Benitez’ game plan of slowly suffocating the opposition by tightening the screw ever more with controlled possession, was working ok. The only problem was that you can’t legislate for human error, Jamaal Lascelles going to sleep and allowing Fulham’s biggest threat a free header and goal.
Much as we used to happily accept that both Sir Bobby and KK’s teams might get undone by a counter-attack due to their own attacking style, we have to do the same with Rafa Benitez.
His game plan against Fulham could and should have ended in a win and on most occasions would have done, only the players let him down.
The poor defending on the corner but more than that, the players as individuals and as a team just weren’t at it 100%. They needed to be moving the ball quicker and make better choices, both Colback and Anita’s choice of pass was terrible most of the night.
We already know that Friday night’s team isn’t the one Rafa Benitez really wants to play, with Mohamed Diame set to come straight in and Aleksandar Mitrovic when his suspension ends.
The Rafa Benitez game plan will change little though, he wants his team playing in a disciplined way and built on a solid defensive performance. This is what he achieved at the end of last season after taking four games to find out what his squad was all about – the team going on to end the season with a six match unbeaten run of three wins and three draws, as well as three clean sheets.
So getting back to Fulham, it was the players who overwhelmingly let Rafa Benitez down, not his tactics.
Just like Kevin Keegan and Sir Bobby Robson, we have to accept that sometimes under Rafa Benitez the odd wheel will fall off.
I predict a very similar formation from Rafa Benitez against Huddersfield but significant changes in team selection, leading to a win and the start of what could be decent unbeaten run to build a foundation for promotion.
This will be the Rafa Benitez route to success and you have to buy into it 100%.