Rafa Benitez had a lose/lose situation when it came to Saturday at Stamford Bridge.
Whatever team selection and/or formation he used, Chelsea were always going to win.
That isn’t being defeatist, just realistic.
When I say Chelsea ‘were always going to win’, that is unless a load of positive things happened during the match.
My point being that Rafa Benitez before the match couldn’t devise a plan to win the game as Antonio Conte held all the aces, including having 18 players arguably better than any in Newcastle’s squad – including five on the bench who cost around £140m, as compared to the whole Newcastle team costing around £70m.
The one thing Rafa was in charge of and able to try and influence, was how much risk would be taken to try and score goals.
This is the team he put out and the subs:
Darlow, Manquillo, Clark, Lejeune, Mbemba, Ritchie, Diame (Shelvey 75), Merino (Yedlin 85), Murphy, Perez (Hayden 62), Gayle
Elliot, Joselu, Mitrovic, Aarons
The goals came in this order: Gayle 12, Hazard 21, Morata 33, Hazard 74.
When I saw the team an hour before kick-off, it screamed ‘damage limitation’ to me.
Rafa Benitez putting a team out that would get beat but which shouldn’t get smashed.
After nine conceded in the last three matches and Man Utd & Watford wasting numerous chances, plus West Brom could even have had more (hit woodwork etc), Rafa was to me clearly trying to ensure this would be no four or five goal demoralising stuffing ahead of vital home games against Leicester and Everton.
The selection of both Perez and Diame rubber stamped this.
As two of the three central players behind lone striker Dwight Gayle, they will follow orders and fill in as extra defenders but offer next to nothing going forward, the pair of them usually create next to no chances in any game.
Newcastle obviously surprised everyone, especially themselves, when taking the lead but clearly had no idea how to capitalise on this. Simply withdrawing to pack the defence and invite the inevitable equaliser and worse.
Sure enough, only 21 minutes later Chelsea had scored two and it was game over, they then relaxed and knocked the ball about under no pressure, whilst Newcastle staying in their defensive stance.
No surprise to see no subs at half-time, Rafa hardly ever changes anything at the break, no matter what the circumstances.
Invariably his first substitution is an unexpected one and sure enough, on 62 minutes and with Newcastle trailing, he takes off an ‘attacking’ midfielder (Perez) and brings on a defensive one in Isaac Hayden. In terms of the match circumstances, this would only logically make sense if Newcastle were winning, or at least drawing.
I did think that Rafa would at least give it a bit of a go in the last 20 minutes or so but no more substitutions and on 74 minutes it was Hazard making it 3-1 with his cheeky penalty, very definitely game over.
Putting Shelvey on at that point all seemed a bit pointless, unless it was simply to give him minutes on the pitch.
Newcastle had less than zero chance of turning it around and if the idea was damage limitation then it looked a dubious decision and sure enough, Shelvey was clearly very wound up in terms of not being involved and seconds after coming on he tried to force it and ended up caught in possession – Chelsea breaking and almost made it 4-1.
After that scare it was back to a disciplined seeing the game out and trying to avoid the fourth and then fifth goal etc etc.
Taking off our most talented (and by that point knackered) midfielder in Merino and replacing him with a full-back, was the cherry on the cake.
The three most attacking subs – two strikers and a winger all ending up not involved when you are losing 3-1…
I don’t think there is a totally right or wrong answer here because nobody knows what would have happened with an alternative team selection or subs.
Very definitely in Rafa’s mind it wasn’t a game where he felt it made little difference whether it was 3-1 or 5-1, or worse.
Just maybe if we had got to 80 minutes with the score only 2-1, maybe he would have put a couple of subs on to try and grab a draw, Shelvey and one of the strikers maybe, or even Aarons and one of the strikers.
Having said that, if he had brought a striker on then past history tells you it would just as likely be at the expense of Dwight Gayle rather than a more defensive player.
From 21 minutes Newcastle never looked like getting anything but nor did they look like getting hammered.
If Newcastle can pick up three or more points from these next two home games then I think Rafa Benitez will feel vindicated in trying to keep his team/squad morale from hitting rock bottom, by trying too hard to chase a point at Stamford Bridge.
However, this sadly shows to me just how desperate our position is, when the manager has such a shallow squad that he has to basically write off that Chelsea game without really giving it any kind of a try.
Unless a serious run of injuries forces it, there should be no way we will be seeing both Diame and Perez on the pitch together against either Everton or Leicester. These are two games where Rafa Benitez has to try and win, of that we can be sure.