The Week In Black and White: April – Judgement Day:

So after much hype, some euphoria and some head-scratching, what many of us thought would be a season defining two weeks for Newcastle United, hasn’t proved to be so. Rafa was right, April will be the month most crucial.

It might not have been so, beating our two main rivals in their own backyard could have proved to be decisive had we not then turned in one of worst performances of the season to lose at home to Fulham. Supporting NUFC is never plain sailing.

At least we are still top of the Championship and if we win 8 out of our last 9 games then we will be promoted and no matter how I felt at 5pm on Saturday, I wouldn’t swap our position for anyone else in the division. That’s not a bad starting point for the last two months of the season.

Rafa’s tactics have been discussed at length but it is right to give every man his due and the basic fact is that Rafa is most comfortable with a 4-2-3-1 and has been since the 4-5-1 Valencia played.

So it could be worse, we could be top of the league with John Carew up front on his own. Whatever us armchair managers think, Benitez has a CV which is beyond reproach, definitely the most successful manager this club has ever had pre-NUFC.

Complaining about his 4-2-3-1 also ignores the premise that whatever tactics used, if your players play well then you usually get points, if they play poorly, you usually don’t. Rafa’s 4-2-3-1 may not be the possession based 4-2-3-1 of Pep at Barca or Dortmund over the past few years, it is the compact 4-2-3-1 which makes teams difficult to break down when they don’t have the ball but anyone who saw the Huddersfield game will have seen that they never looked like scoring until Shelvey gave away a soft penalty to make it 1-2.

Anyone who didn’t see it will think that we got battered because they 76% possession. That was never the case, at 0-2 they could have the ball all they liked as long we kept them more 25 yards from the goal. When we didn’t, when we dropped too deep, they scored. The 4-2-3-1 has been effective away from home, we have easily the best record in the league away from home, because the opposition push further forward and we have more room to hit them on the break.

When the home team plays like an away team, we don’t do so well. Blackburn did it perfectly, though no goals in 25 shots may have something more to do with it. That our home form is so poor, second bottom Wigan have conceded less goals at home than us, is because we are forced to play in the offensive and we are not set up to do that. The players are forced out of their comfort zone so that the manager doesn’t have to be.

An example of this is the Brighton game. Winston Churchill said that “History belongs to the victors” and it seems that Rafa’s decision to go with Gouffran up front on his own against Brighton has been seen through many eyes as proof of his tactical genius.

I don’t see it like that myself though I have read the articles on The Mag which present the opposite argument and I take their points, I’ve enjoyed reading them and understand the opinions given. The ‘Messi and Ronaldo left on the bench’ article had a great headline and overall we all know that Rafa’s own history and achievements deserve our absolute respect. Just like Kenny Daglish and Ruud Gullit.

Overall though, Rafa’s decision to play Gouffran up front on his own looks good now because we won and the winners write their own history, no one will care how Brighton feel. The decision didn’t look too good when we were losing and all the talk that we were playing well whilst losing could emphasise that we might have been playing well and winning with a centre forward up front. Or even two. We might not of course, we might have been losing 4-0, so there’s no point in labouring the point or discussing the respective mobility and fitness of our three strikers or whether we were deliberately tiring Brighton out. What happened was that we won. And that’s great. So Rafa was right.

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‘Rafa: Jedi or Sith?’

Generally, the only issues I have with our tactics and with Rafa are that firstly, when the opposition’s main strength is to have the ball, like Fulham, letting them have it isn’t a great way to play. If anyone saw PSG harass Barca into submission in Paris they would have wondered why PSG let Barca have the ball in Spain. The two game-plans were as different as the two results.

Secondly, and more importantly to me, I want to see my team attack. Successful or not, I just want to see more attacking football. If I wanted to see my team win 1-0 every week I would support Chelsea or watch videos from 1983 of Ian Rush scoring after 10 minutes and then Hansen and Lawrenson passing back to Grobbelaar for the rest of the game. I have a massive amount of respect for Benitez but overall his footballing plan is about winning by not conceding goals and nullifying the opposition rather than winning by having a right go at them and scoring loads of goals.

It has been a very successful philosophy and I hope that he is very successful at NUFC but that doesn’t stop me wanting to see more attacking play. Personally, the Bristol City game was much more fun than the likes of Villa or Wolves, which was like watching a footballing Eastenders. I suppose that in a nutshell is the question of what we want out of our football: do we want to win, do we want to be entertained, or both?

If we were in the Premier League, winning cagily would be more attractive rather than in the Championship where we basically have to win if we want to get out of the league. For all the Championship plaudits, for me it is a bit like an all-inclusive holiday in Turkey, it’s good fun for a fortnight but it would ruin us to stay much longer.

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 ‘The Curse of Mo.’

One of the biggest talking points of the season has been the contribution of Mo Diame, or lack of it, depending on your viewpoint.

On one hand, as people have pointed out on The Mag, we normally win when he is in the team and he has a good habit of breaking up the opposition’s attacks before they start, in a much less obvious way than the likes of Jack Colback. On the other hand, Diame can be ineffective sometimes, which given his size, power and pace is probably why he has played for the likes of West Ham, Hull and us, rather than Arsenal and Liverpool.

What I don’t like about him is that he is annoyingly lazy, it seems the bigger the challenge, the lazier he gets. Against Brighton running around was the least I expected of him but he didn’t do that until he dropped back alongside Shelvey with 15 minutes to go. Perhaps that is his best position now, his power is an alternative to Shelvey’s wizardry or perhaps an addition to it. Either way, I’d be tempted to play him in there just to see him break sweat.

Against Brighton sometimes it looked like the best thing we can do for him is make him a bed up in midfield he was so lethargic, then he scored a goal which got us back into the game, a lucky one agreed, if he had been moving around as much as I wanted him too, he probably wouldn’t have been standing flat-footed and disinterested in Brighton’s penalty area. Love him or hate him, The Diame Conundrum would make an excellent book by Robert Ludlum, if you like the player the film would star Matt Damon in the title role, if you don’t, Homer Simpson would do him proud.

That Benitez sticks up for him tells its own story, suggesting that something is wrong and the player needs regular support, or perhaps that Rafa believes he is our best number 10. Either way, it is a situation which needs addressing.

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‘Barry Manilow discusses Wayne Rooney on Sky Sports News’

Last week we were linked with a summer bid for Wayne Rooney as suggested by Sky Sports presenter Barry Manilow. One reason why this might come true is that if Rafa rates Mo Diame as our best number 10 then it doesn’t say much for the long-term claims of Ayoze Perez, Adam Armstrong or JonJo Shelvey to occupy that position, personally Matt Ritchie looks the best number 10 we’ve got.

On the basis that we go up, a club of our stature, support and the over-60s ‘night-life’ around the Central Station may well attract a man of Rooney’s tastes.

It is unlikely for a number of reasons though, in China he’ll get ten times what Fat Mike will pay him for wearing a Toon strip, ironic given that Fat Mike pays the Chinese a tenth of what they’d get paid in Newcastle making it.

Rooney is also more likely to go to Everton if he leaves Manyoo, he supports them and they’ve got a better team.

Nice of Sky Sports to think of us but we are more likely to have Tom Cairney filling that role next season, assuming we go up. If we stay where we are, it is one year more year of Mo’s magic.

(All contributions from Newcastle fans welcome, send articles (as well as ideas/suggestions) to contribute@themag.co.uk)



  • Mal

    An interesting article Ben. My take on the Brighton game was that it was the Murphy substitution which transformed the game rather than the initial Gouffran selection. In the Huddersfield game I thought that we were really good first half but pretty poor second half and we’re hanging on for grim death towards the end. As a supporter for many, many years I just knew that the way we played in that second half we were going to concede. Simply booting the ball out of defence to no one in particular and then inviting it to come straight back isn’t good in my book though many will say we won, so what. We were unimpressive at Reading and nearly lost in the last seconds with the shot that hit the crossbar. The Fulham result (and performance) was poor but we haven’t been good at home recently and, like you, I would love to see have a more attacking intent at home – you can still play on the front foot with only 1 up front if that’s the preferred system. The way we are playing at home at the moment tends to quieten the home crowd as much as anything – there’s not much to cheer when the back 4 are passing the ball sideways amongst themselves.
    We’re still top though so hopefully back on track at Birmingham and then win those 2 home games and the picture will look brighter. HTL

  • Rich Lawson

    Homer Simpson ! Brilliant.

  • funlovingexpress

    Superb article. Just want to point out, isn’t that football though? Fans have a go if you lose and evaluate tactics whereas its less so when they win.

    As for the Brighton game, Gouff was a masterfill pick in my opinion because we had to sit so deep to counter them and needed top end workrate from midfield to attack.

    I firmly believe the plan was always to bring on a different tactical attacking theme later on in the game which would be to late for them to do anything about.

    I argued with my dad all game as he said we were being outplayed and should be on the offensive.

    I think it was a brilliant showing of probing football for most of the game to counter their threats and all game said “dont worry, we will attack at the end”

    I see footie as a chess game though and my dad sees it as crosses being pinged in non stop. I think that is the contrast between many of our fans. Some see it my way, others see it like my dads.