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Opinion

Does the Messiah Have a Masterplan?

1 year ago
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Mike Ashley is responsible for Newcastle United’s failings over the past decade. His decisions and lack of ambition in a one-club city averaging a home attendance of 52,000 have seen United regress to the lows of the end of the Division 1 era, just before the Premier League rebranding and Sir John Hall assuming control of the club.

We are where we are because of Mike Ashley. This is irrefutable. And not the point of this article.

Newcastle United is lucky to have a manager of the calibre of Rafa Benitez.

As the only manager to win all three current European trophies and the World Club Cup, he should never have had to manage in the English Championship. The fans are firmly behind him and always have been: they trust his judgment and acknowledge the limitations imposed by an incompetent owner that promised him every penny of what was generated after a season in which the club made a net transfer income of £40m. Rafa Benitez is making the best of the crooked hand he’s been dealt. But is he really, though?

There wasn’t much more Rafa could have done to prevent the club from relegation the season he took over. Nobody could blame him for that. Much was then shed in wages from a bloated squad and with immediate promotion imperative, replacements were required. Even so, paying the following figures during a Championship campaign for a list of players who weren’t superior to those remaining after relegation seemed short-sighted folly at a club run by an owner notorious for not spending extravagantly, or even as necessary:

Daryl Murphy – £3m

Achraaf Lazaar – £3m

Mohamed Diame – £4m

Grant Hanley – £5m

Matt Ritchie – £12m

Dwight Gayle – £10m

Matz Sels – £5m

Ritchie and Gayle excelled in the Championship, playing their part to ensure the division title was secured on the last day of the season. For a pair who cost £22m, they did exactly as expected in the second tier. As for the others in that list, well, they’re barely worth mentioning.

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And so to this season: £4.5m for Javier Manquillo. Mr Mediocre. Is he better than Paul Dummett, who seems to get better with every game he doesn’t play for the club, or Jesus Gamez, who’s performed well whenever called upon, or even Massadio Haidara, promising many years ago on the odd occasions he was picked and wasn’t injured?

How about that £12m for Jacob Murphy? Is he superior to Matt Ritchie, Christian Atsu, or Rolando Aarons? Does he add another dimension? Well, no, he’s a young lad and has much to learn, but to survive the Premier League every squad should be rotated because of injury or loss of form.

Right now, Newcastle United sit bottom of the Premier League Form Table with five losses in six matches, including home defeats to Bournemouth and Watford. Irrespective of formation, the same cagey system is perpetually deployed: sit deep and hope to conjure something on the counter or from a set-piece, even when at home, or when losing. Huge gaps between defence and midfield and midfield and forwards, ensure that long balls abound, often to a 5’8” striker, and the other team inevitably controls possession throughout the game.

Really, if we’re being objective, it’s the same negative mentality as that of Benitez’s predecessors, except we sometimes take the lead and experience hope and joy before the frustration and resignation settles in and the other team wins.

Rather than rotating the squad and offering opportunities to those who haven’t been involved in recent failings, Benitez continues using the same players, some switching between the bench and the starting line-up depending on mistakes made, or how ineffective they’ve been in the previous fixture.

Of course, Rafa Benitez is at the training ground each day and sees and knows things about the squad that no fan ever will, but if the team more or less picks itself because those left out are clearly incompetent, it doesn’t matter whether Benitez or McClaren or Carver or Pardew is the manager.

But we all know this isn’t true, and that, as with players, some managers are better than others. Or simply have the skills conducive to maximising limited resources. For example, the manager of Saturday’s victorious opponents was able to secure a fourth-placed finish and European qualification for a previously unfashionable mid-table side (Nice) by building a team around Hatem Ben Arfa the season after the supremely gifted Frenchman was written off by such managerial heavyweights as Steve Bruce, John Carver and Alan Pardew.

Some managers can even eke out six international goals in nine appearances from a forward frozen out of his club side for the best part of two seasons, thus ensuring World Cup qualification for their nation; this from a striker usurped at club level by players who will never get anywhere near their national teams because of superior compatriots.

Meanwhile, a player who couldn’t get into the starting line-up for Scotland, a country who didn’t qualify for the World Cup, continues to start every game and underperform for the club bottom of the Premier League Form Table. Would Matt Ritchie still be picked if he didn’t take corners and free kicks?

Perhaps if Benitez started Jonjo Shelvey, a man many deemed unlucky to miss out on being chosen for the last England squad, the set-piece conundrum would have an obvious solution. Can Newcastle United really afford to leave a player as incisive as Shelvey on the bench, asks the entire British football world? Not given their recent results.

And dropping Ritchie could allow Rolando Aarons a chance to show that he’s better than Ritchie, Atsu, and Murphy, that all the promise he’s shown between injuries can be developed and realised, and that actually, he’s the most exciting player in a mediocre squad battling relegation, capable of creating a scoring opportunity or at the very least dragging the team forward ten or twenty yards towards the opposition’s goal. Or not. But in a losing team devoid of ability and inspiration, he deserves an opportunity longer than twenty minutes at the end of a game that’s already been decided to show what he’s capable of.

As does forgotten talent Massaido Haidara, especially considering this season’s problems at the left-back position. Whether or not you agree that Benitez has to be less conservative and stop playing his underperforming favourites instead of others with different qualities, something needs to change to stop the club from sliding back into the Championship.

Despite all the takeover talk, it’s possible that United will remain under Ashley’s control for the rest of the season and that in January sufficient funds won’t be released for better personnel, which means that Benitez will have to somehow find a formula with the current squad.

At least then we’ll discover whether those fringe players are any good. Or maybe we won’t. Perhaps Benitez will continue using the same core currently incapable of getting results, substituting attacking midfielders for defensive midfielders and bringing on right-backs for centre-midfielders when we’re losing.

It’s been said that repeating the same mistakes in the hope of producing different results is the very definition of insanity.

Well, Rafa doesn’t seem like a madman to me, just stubborn, defensive, and unadventurous. But then maybe he has a grand plan and is adhering to it aggressively. I mean, he did leave Valencia because of the owner’s transfer policy. Perhaps he’s learned from that and is now trying a different tactic: By performing so badly, he’s driving down the club’s value by the game in the hope of inducing a change in ownership. Come January, if United are in the bottom three, Amanda Stavely might well be able to meet Mike Ashley’s revised valuation.

What other reason could there possibly be for a manager with Rafa Benitez’s CV to send out essentially the same side to play the same way and lose every single week in a frankly mediocre league, outside of the top six clubs?

Maybe the messiah works in mysterious ways, ways far beyond the comprehension of mere mortals like you and me.

Right now though, it’s hard not to see Rafa Benitez in the same dim light as Fabio Capello managing the England team: an undeniably formerly brilliant manager whose previous employment was at Real Madrid, his best work long behind him, struggling with a hostile work environment that falls short of his lofty expectations, stubbornly trying to inflict an inflexible vision upon inadequate players and failing with a sense of inevitability that is all too familiar to the Newcastle United faithful.
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