Rafa Benitez turned 56 years old on Saturday and just after 2pm, fair to say that most fans thought this would be a birthday he would never forget, for all the wrong reasons – realistically the confirmation of Newcastle United’s relegation.
There was disbelief in the Newcastle Arms when the team was announced, not anger as there would have been when Steve McClaren was in charge and he’d made the changes Rafa had.
I didn’t hear anybody saying they agreed with the team but on the other hand I heard no anger against Rafa Benitez.
It was a case of ‘Well if he thinks this is what he needs to do with this sackless bunch of slackers then fair enough…’.
Then I looked on Twitter at around 2.15pm and saw the following from The Mag:
“No Newcastle player has been any good recently, might not be the Newcastle team most would pick but good to have a brave manager.”
It summed it all up for me.
The situation is desperate and so little wonder desperate solution are being looked for by Rafa Benitez.
Aleksandar Mitrovic, Ayoze Perez and Jonjo Shelvey were the three big surprises as they were dropped to the bench but after last week at Southampton, was it really a surprise?
All three were absolutely useless at St.Mary’s and didn’t deserve to start yesterday.
I know that some of you will be shouting that yes those three might have been hopeless against Southampton but it should have been the likes of Gini Wijnaldum and Moussa Sissoko getting the bullet.
No doubt if the fans voted the team in, then Perez, Shelvey and Mitrovic would all have started but Rafa Benitez was shown to be right.
Yes Newcastle still needed a slice of luck at both ends yesterday but if he’d kept more or less the same team then I have a feeling it would have been more or less the same result as we had at Southampton.
Mitrovic is so painfully slow and with Newcastle able to get such minimal support up alongside him with this team, he is a liability for much of the time. Not being able to play to his strengths and only having 34% of possession yesterday, he is totally unsuited when trying to counter-attack when on from the start.
Ayoze Perez is a real fans’ favourite but is maybe having that difficult second season, made all the more impossible by the mess surrounding him. In flashes he has shown great skill this season but overall he just goes missing 90% of the time and isn’t in the game.
As for Jonjo Shelvey – this was the Rafa Benitez master class in management.
The midfielder has lost his way in recent matches and has looked ever more frustrated with his non-delivering team-mates.
As well as losing form though, a big factor in removing Jonjo Shelvey from starting yesterday was down to the psychology of the match.
From everything that had been spoken beforehand, it was quite clear that a number of Swansea players felt they had something to prove to their one-time colleague.
I think his presence on the pitch would have added that edge to some of their key players and instead of a team already safe and easing towards the end of the season, you would have had a much more motivated outfit.
Rafa Benitez took that away from the opposition and so when it came to Shelvey and the other two coming off the bench, we saw much improved and focused displays from the trio.
You have to bear in mind that when all three subs came onto the pitch, it wasn’t with the luxury of the game already won.
Instead, United were hanging onto their one goal lead and under pressure.
So 10 out of 10 for Rafa Benitez on his birthday and I would bake him a really big cake – if I could cook.
I think it is obvious that managers of a lower calibre that we have seen in the past (Pardew, Carver, Allardyce, McClaren…) would have simply rearranged the deckchairs and tinkered with the team to a minimal degree.
Rafa gambled big and did what he thought was right – now all we need is for the players to respond in the next five matches in the same way they did against Swansea.
With the help of Rafa Benitez they might just pull it off.