3-0. It’s comprehensive. It’s not sitting back. It’s sharp up front, decent at the back. It’s a purring cat in the sun of a result. And it was great to see Rafa Benitez smiling about it.
The positive pickings from the 48 minutes we played against Spurs, before Shelvey managed to get himself sent off, were missing at Huddersfield. They turned into shuffling of feet and some murmurings about tactics after the Nottingham Forest game. But the performance against West Ham suggests a positive that was missing for a few years before Rafa Benitez arrived: the ability to learn, adapt, and improve. Or at least do what you are supposed to do.
A 1-0 Newcastle lead under Pardew always worried me. He seemed amazed if the other team came out and played differently in the second half.
Under McClaren, I was just worried, full stop.
But Rafa has a plan. Against West Ham, we saw a little more of what that plan can involve; and that is better support from midfield. For each of the goals, the midfield pressed, and even though Mitro was on his own to waltz around Joe ‘great looking hair’ Hart for the third, the pressing up the pitch of the lines of defence and midfield ultimately created the conditions for the goal. I don’t know if this is learning, or just being better at the job, but it certainly worked.
Benitez teams play in solid lines. We always knew that. He has a system in mind and is trying to mould the players around it, albeit they are the players he can get, rather than those he really wanted. Or wants. Benitez is not alone in having a system and moulding the players, like a play dough set; Herbert Chapman did it with Arsenal in the 1930s; Alf Ramsey did it with England; and today, Pep Guardiola is trying it with Manchester City. It takes the players to know their job in that system.
Good footballers can learn and develop, rather than just do what they always did. Modern sports psychologists, and good managers, help footballers to understand their role in a team.
Alan Shearer was a prime exponent of this; once his blistering pace was surgically removed, he changed his game. He became stronger and his reading of what was going on around him became even more fluent. Benitez presumably sees how players adapt in training, so is presumably well placed to see how they adapt to his system. The problem is, even players who can learn, need to be at a particular level to fulfil their role. Maybe that is why Rafa is a bit worried?
Or maybe the fear factor of knowing you’re playing against a twenty goals per season striker is the extra ingredient Rafa is looking for?
It might sound counter-intuitive but I am worried that the reality check of the last two weeks will, in Mike Ashley’s head, be replaced with a quick spreadsheet of goals against West Ham, and who scored them. There is no column on Ashley’s spreadsheet for experience, or fear factor.
I’m worried that he’ll think there is no problem, or that Lee Charnley will tell him there is no longer a problem. It’s in Charnley’s interests to say that, as it makes it look like he’s been good at his job. “Look, Mike. Joselu, the lad we signed from Stoke scored. So everything is fine.” I want to enjoy winning 3-0, so I’m going to… but with the promise of Merino, the work of Ritchie, the calmness of Clark, can you imagine actually how good we could be with a proven goal scorer, used to the pressure that Joselu is about to be placed under?
With the nurturing of an experienced and successful coach like Benitez, Joselu could be excellent. I want him to be excellent. But it seems a bit unfair and unrealistic to have him carry not just hope, but responsibility, at this stage. Allow him to develop. Allow him to learn.
For what it’s worth, I’ve got hope for Gayle, even though he wasn’t playing on Saturday. Last season, he read the defence of admittedly weaker teams, and found the holes to squeeze into. But to do that, he needs the kind of pass played into him that he can run onto. The kind of pass Atsu played on Saturday. And the kind of pass Atsu played on Saturday was not always the kind of pass he supplied last season. We know he (Atsu) is quick. Is Saturday enough evidence to suggest that he is now also thinking about the pace and weight of the final pass? He’s not the finished product; but he could be learning. Let’s hope so; it took the young Ryan Giggs extra practice to develop his crossing.
So what next? Good teams strengthen while they’re doing well. One victory is not ‘doing well’ but it shows potential. It suggests the ambition that we as fans, and Rafa, clearly hold. It would be a relief to sign a proven striker, but either we can’t finance one, or they don’t want to come here. Are we just moany, jittery fans? If we’re moany, it’s because Charnley struggles to persuade Benitez’ choice of players to sign for a club that must surely be seen as a passport to bigger (richer?) things. If we’re jittery, it’s because we’ve been here before.
I want to end on a positive; I don’t feel like this season is the slow motion car crash of our last relegation. I certainly think it’s going to be tough. But we might be putting it right after three games, rather than asking for ten. Surely that’s learning.
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