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Opinion

The Newcastle United problem at St James Park is obvious

1 year ago
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The Newcastle United home form has been woeful recently.

The problem is obvious. They’ve only scored 9 goals at home in 11 games this season.

That looks increasingly like a deliberate strategic choice coming straight out of Rafa Benitez’ office too, with a groundswell of discontent about his management of the team as a consequence.

The 0-0 draw with Brighton that marked the end of 2017 was probably the worst of Newcastle’s home performances this season.

Unlike Manchester City, it was a game that Benitez should have attacked far more than he did.

Instead, he approached it the same way that he approached the Everton, Bournemouth, and Crystal Palace games, all of which had one goal in them either way.

The Crystal Palace win could have been the Brighton draw; the Everton and Bournemouth defeats could have been the Crystal Palace win.

It is quite clear from all of this that there is a natural caution – even an over-caution – about Rafa Benitez’s tactical style.

A little like Sam Allardyce, he thinks about defensive solidity first and foremost, and when Jamaal Lascelles is fit and well, he tends to achieve it.

The performance against Manchester City may have lacked ambition and infuriated Gary Neville, but it almost worked and gained the team another point, one piece of brilliance from Kevin de Bruyne aside.

Benitez’ defensive style keeps a sub-par squad competitive in games, in the hope that they will snatch a goal on the break, or from a set-piece, or that Dwight Gayle might finish the one or two chances that fall to him during one of Newcastle’s rare spells of pressure.

Unfortunately, it’s a strategy that’s not enormously exciting to watch.

At the moment, it’s not quite working either.

However, the reason it’s not quite working is because the Newcastle squad lack an attacking cutting edge. That is also the reason a defensive approach is necessary.

It is not adding anything new to the debate to point out that Benitez has been chronically underfunded, to the point that the players he has available to him don’t have the technical ability to dominate games, or even to take the few chances that they currently create in a match.

Fans might be justified in levelling some criticism at him for investing £12m in a very raw Jacob Murphy, who rarely looks capable of changing a match, or for finally deciding that enough-was-enough with Mitrovic after he was given a rare opportunity to regain some trust against West Ham and instead showed his gobsmacking levels of idiocy by elbowing Manuel Lanzini.

That aside, over the three transfer windows that he has had at the club, he has made a net profit, ridding the club of mercenaries and assembling a young, hard working, committed team in their place. All without spending a (net) penny.

That lack of investment shows.

Mikel Merino looks a steal at £8m; in DeAndre Yedlin he has found incredible pace for the same price; in Christian Atsu he has found a bright spark on the left wing for just £6m; in Matt Ritchie he has found a decent delivery and an incredible work rate for £12m; in Isaac Hayden he has discovered a capable and committed defensive midfielder for just £4m; at £5m, Joselu labours and wins the odd long ball in the air, but his bargain-basement status shows; the £10m Dwight Gayle might be capable of finishing if he gets the ball in behind the defence, but that’s about all.

These are all terrifyingly cheap, reasonably astute signings that have added something to Benitez’ squad in the present and will improve in the long-term under his tutelage.

They are not proven Premier League stars capable of unpicking stubborn defences with regularity or ease. Nor should the fans expect them to be.

Rafa Benitez must feel like a daughter who begged her father for a pony for Christmas, ended up with a rocking horse on castors, got asked to run the Grand National on it, and then got shouted at when it trundled into the first fence.

With that in mind, would a change of manager or a complete change of strategy to more attacking, possession-based football really benefit the squad in its current form?

I’d argue not.

I fear Benitez is possibly setting them up in the only way that might snatch them results at the moment.

The comparison to Sam Allardyce that I made earlier is not a flattering one, but it does suggest Benitez – and all of the defensive organisation that he instills in his young team – might just keep them in the Premier League.

He’s a vastly experienced coach whose defensive approach succeeds in making games balanced, when squads arguably aren’t. He just needs that balance to tip a fraction in his favour instead of a fraction against it.

A patient, on-side fanbase, a little more attacking intent against weaker opposition at home, and a player or two in January who might be more capable of creating and finishing one or two chances in a game, might be enough to do that.

But they are minor tweaks to be made to what is a solid base, not a major overhaul of the team’s management.

The 0-0 draw with Brighton might have been a poor result, and an even poorer performance, and I’m not really defending it. What I am arguing is that we fans would do well to keep perspective, remain patient, and not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
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