The honeymoon is definitely over and I’d think that even the most vocal of Rafa Benitez supporters will now have concerns at the dip in both results and performances since the turn of the year.
In common with many other fans, I was absolutely appalled at the team selection for the Oxford game last weekend. Whether this was a genuine attempt to rest players for the ongoing league campaign – or a power play on the manager’s behalf to force Mike Ashley to get the chequebook out – it backfired in a big way.
Not only did the team, a mix of kids and players recently returning from weeks or longer on the injury list, lose comprehensively, it also eroded a lot of goodwill the Spaniard had built up since his arrival.
A lot of that goodwill was riding on the QPR match. Win well and all would be rosy in the Benitez back garden – anything less and his judgement would rightly be called into question.
We all now know how that one panned out.
Jonjo Shelvey’s early opener and subsequent performance simply lulled watching fans and teammates alike to believe that now the recognised ‘first team’ had returned, things could only get better. But they didn’t.
Badly disjointed, second to the ball and looking like a team who’d not played together for months, never mind a week and a half, United were on the back foot from that opening minute and it was on the cards that QPR would get an equaliser.
The decision to keep Ciaran Clark on the pitch after his head injury was bizarre to say the least. Not only was there an adequate replacement in Benitez-buy Grant Hanley but Clark’s comings and goings for treatment left the team with ten men and did much to disrupt the rhythm of the game.
It also came back to haunt us as he headed into his own goal right at the death.
Defensively, Newcastle looked a shambles. A sluggish Lascelles was less like a club captain and more of a pub player as he seemed intent on giving the ball away at every opportunity. Full-backs Yedlin and Dummett fared little better.
‘Master tactician’ Rafa Benitez seemed to have little answer to United’s troubles and despite a marginal improvement in the second half, the malaise continued unabated.
Balls were passed squarely across the back with Shelvey providing the only real offensive threat from a midfield that sadly seems drilled in safety first.
Ritchie’s goal, coming almost out of nowhere, had a galvanising effect to some extent but merely papered over a multitude of cracks and as the game wore on, it was no surprise to see QPR return to London with a share of the spoils.
With yet another two goals conceded in the latter stages of each half, I’m sure I’m not the only one to ask just how long exactly is it going to be before this longstanding weakness will be banished from within the gates of St James Park?
If this is the result of ‘resting’ players then Rafa really needs to rethink his strategy. It’s far, far better to have continuity in the team, keep the momentum going and make changes if and when required.
I do believe United have the players to get them to the Premier League but unless the manager abandons his safety-first approach and plays on the front foot it’s going to be a very fraught journey on the way to the promised land.
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