Has Rafa Benitez been rumbled?
Since day one of this Championship campaign, Rafa Benitez has set out his stall as regards to how his team play the game.
Keep it tight at the back, keep control of the game and with one up front hit teams with a sucker punch and go home with the three points.
All very well on the team’s travels, but at St James Park where the visitors aren’t under pressure to produce attacking football and go for the win, United have been on the receiving end of a few sucker punches of their own.
Blackburn hit us with their second of the season during Monday’s 1-0 win over a Newcastle side that for the first ten or fifteen minutes, showed very little imagination against a team struggling at the wrong end of the Championship table.
Long balls and clearances lofted in the direction of Dwight Gayle, either missed their mark or were eaten up by Blackburn defenders in an uneven duel of both stature and numbers.
The situation cried out for another body up front rather than the hit-and-miss form of Diame, who looks like a square peg in a round hole in the role he’s asked to fulfil.
Without the suspended Jonjo Shelvey whose vision and speed of thought makes him the ideal provider for the United number nine, Newcastle’s central midfield pairing of Colback and Hayden are tidy enough footballers but offer little in the way of attacking momentum.
Both players resort to the square or backwards pass on far too many occasions and while this sideways motion no doubt keeps up the possession stats (67% of the play), it led to a paltry five shots on target from a total of 25 aimed at Rovers’ goal.
It doesn’t make for good reading, especially when the home team then go on to score with their only serious chance of the whole match.
Newcastle have been very successful in the first half of the season with this conservative approach and with Shelvey in the team it remains a more-than functional system to grind out results when circumstances dictate.
However, as teams are getting wise to these tactics a different approach needs to be used, especially at St James Park and again when playing away from home against the ‘minnows’ of the league.
Playing a a target man up front gives an outlet when under pressure, links play, and more importantly takes some of the burden from Gayle as an offensive threat.
In many fans’ eyes Aleksander Mitrovic is the perfect foil – perhaps not a view shared by his manager who signed Daryl Murphy as his ‘big man’ up front. Remarkably, Murphy has had even less minutes on the the pitch than the out-of-favour Serbian international.
I can see a lot of parallels with the Matz Sels situation, a goalkeeper brought in as the club’s new number one. To many observers it was apparent from the off that he wasn’t an upgrade on what was already at the club.
Benitez admirably backed the Belgian to prove his worth despite a number of poor performances before eventually, and not before time, rightly restoring Karl Darlow to the starting line-up where he has since excelled.
Nobody likes to admit that they’re wrong, especially in the egotistical game of professional football, but sticking to ‘Plan A’ when it isn’t working is nonsensical.
Benitez needs to ditch the safety-first approach, restore Mitrovic to the starting eleven and take the game to the opposition with a more expansive game – or face the prospect that the chasing pack begin to put Newcastle’s promotion bid at serious risk.