As Newcastle United go into the closing stages of their Championship campaign, it would appear that manager Rafa Benitez has done just enough to complete the job he was asked to do. Barring a catastrophic collapse, a return to the Premier League looks assured.
Grinding out wins away from home, alongside a very mixed set of results back at St James Park, the words ‘just enough’ seem to sum up United’s entire season.
Performances have rarely reached the heights that their points total would indicate and this provides an interesting viewpoint on Benitez’ stewardship.
Is he a tactical genius who has transformed a group of underperforming players and worked miracles to keep his side at the top of the table for the majority of the season?
Or has the Spaniard’s over-cautious, safety-first outlook been instrumental in the team’s current malaise, where points have been slipping away with increasing regularity as United limp to the finishing line?
Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between.
While Benitez hasn’t quite made silk purses from sows ears, he has managed to get the likes of Gouffran and Anita playing above themselves, albeit in a lower division. His purchases have on the whole been a little hit and miss and for every Ritchie, Gayle or Hayden there’s also a Sels, Diame or Handley.
It’s also true to say that two players I’d have put money on to set the Championship alight this season, in Perez and Mitrovic, have suffered in the rigid confines of Rafa’s favoured system with top scorer Gayle employed to plough a lone furrow upfront.
The one-all draw with Leeds showed just what a good team Newcastle United can be, when – for Rafa anyway – caution is thrown to the wind and a team finally selected that matched the expectations of the majority of fans.
How unfortunate then with ten minutes remaining and Newcastle a goal ahead and raining corners down on the Leeds goal like confetti, Benitez’ negativity reared its head with disastrous effect.
Instead of a Murphy to add extra aerial threat or an Atsu’s speed and trickery to heap further pressure on a tired Leeds defence – we duly get Colback, Yedlin and Diame to shore things up at the expense of a hard-working Perez and two of the team’s outstanding performers in Hayden and Ritchie.
That decision may well have been made with one eye on the Ipswich game but that’s of little consolation when things pan out as they did.
With two corners in quick succession – surely better employed to continue Newcastle’s assault on the opposition – wasted in an effort to run down the clock, this was to prove a costly mistake and lead directly to the equaliser.
What quite happened to Newcastle’s defence as Wood grabbed an undeserved point for the visitors is anybody’s guess – but the big centre-forward who’d been well-shackled for the previous 94 minutes didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth as he slotted home.
For Leeds it was just enough.
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(The instant fan/writer reaction from Friday night’s match HERE)
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