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Opinion

I will make no apologies to the Sky Monkeys for Rafa Benitez tactics

1 year ago
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There is no other way of saying this, the media coverage of our approach to last night’s game against Manchester City was an absolute disgrace.

How anyone can criticise the approach of Rafa Benitez to this situation is beyond me, particularly in such trying circumstances. I expect it from sections of twitter ‘fans’ and others who probably hardly attend or watch in close detail on television, but for quality, respected pundits to do so is genuinely astonishing.

Yet Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher, two pundits who are normally a joy to listen to, should be embarrassed by comments made in the sky coverage of the City game. Carragher’s comment of the league becoming “a joke” because of the pattern of play in the first thirty minutes is the type of ridiculous overreaction usually reserved for the Robbie Savages and Chris Suttons of the punditry world.

It’s abysmal short-sighted punditry from a man who himself knows the wide variety of tactics and ways to win that can be employed to win football matches. He even said in a radio interview this year that the one thing he would change in football would be to get rid of the obsession with “playing out from the back”. Maybe Nev and Carra were just fulfilling the aims set by Sky, of having their pundits at the front of the post-game chat, driving the agenda for wider discussion around the match. Even so I thought the comments were naïve, unimaginative and a noticeable blotch on their records as pundits.

Yes, we were playing purely to contain City in the first half but firstly, there is nothing wrong with that when they are on an incredible winning streak and destroying whatever is put in front of them. Secondly, this type of game-plan is hardly new in the Premier League. Particularly since the mid-2000s sides towards the bottom of the division have become better organised and more of a challenge for the big teams to just swat aside. They must use everything in their weaponry to do so, and Rafa did this on Wednesday, played to our strengths by setting us up so deep and narrow. It frustrated the runaway league leaders.

City may have dominated possession as expected, but so what? They dominate possession against everyone. It was not easy for them, and you could see the sheer relief in their celebrations when Sterling scored. When you are in sport or any competitive environment and your opponent is far more capable than you, the basic first tactic should be, to do what your opponent least wants you to do.

Manchester City did not want us to set-up as we did, proven by Pep’s irritated comments of us “not wanting to play” in his post-match interview. I find it baffling how so many people either involved in football, or watching, are ridiculing the approach Benitez and the side took to this game.

They are also ignoring how the game-plan virtually worked, and had Dwight Gayle buried that chance towards the end, we would have been the side to stop City’s incredible run. It also took a brilliant piece of defensive play from Otamendi to keep us from equalising immediately.

The whole response really has made me question the standard of football coverage/journalism in this country. Observers turned their noses up at us shooting from kick-off, but they forget Jonjo Shelvey has nearly scored from his own half for us on multiple occasions already, and the chances of scoring are only going to be increased the more attempts he has.

No one seemed to have a problem with newly-promoted Stoke City coming up and utilising Rory Delap’s long throws to score goals and get points. Why that was allowed by the football purist brigade I don’t know, maybe because it worked consistently? That’s acceptable. Maybe it was because back then Stoke were still considered a novelty in the Premier League, something that Newcastle United will never be even after a couple of relegations.

Everyone loves the game for different reasons but personally I believe a big part of why football is so fascinating, particularly at professional level, is how such a wide variety of tactics can be employed. I would say the football Man City have played this season has been brilliant, but I would also say there is no one ‘correct’ way the game should be played. We love football because it can bring such a contrast in styles of play and that is what we saw on Wednesday night.

I played in a team a couple of years ago that scored twice shooting from kick-off, in one season. Lesser standard of football, yes, but the principal remains the same. You play to your strengths. When we first tried it (from the actual kick-off) our opponents started laughing and making remarks. When we tried it again later in the game after conceding a late goal it went it. I don’t remember too many of them laughing as the goalkeeper picked the ball out of the net.

Gary Neville, usually my pundit of choice, blasted us for playing with ‘no ambition’. Actually Gary we did play with ambition, the ambition to limit the quality of chances the league leaders had, and to stay in the game for as long as possible. Mission accomplished, even if it wasn’t quite enough to get something from the game. The comments of the pundits really showed up Sky pundits’ limited appreciation of the situation most clubs in the league find themselves in – a relegation dogfight. Rotating the side ahead of a huge game against Brighton on Saturday was the right call, particularly considering we have a day less than our opponents to prepare.

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It’s not as if Rafa hasn’t employed containment or “parking the bus” tactics before, he knows exactly when they are necessary. In the 2005 Champions League semi-final Liverpool were up against a Chelsea side that were hugely superior in terms of technical ability and could probably give the current Man City side a game. He employed an ultra-defensive formation and gameplan. With two defensive left-sided players and a lone striker who was out of the game for much of the ninety minutes. They nicked an early goal, and then defended for all they were worth and carried out the plan perfectly. Sure, they had to ride their luck at times, but it worked.

I don’t remember the Liverpool tactics then over the two legs getting any criticism. It seems to be allowed if it’s a ‘big game’. When you are the only televised Sky game on that day, you better entertain or be damned if you don’t.

As rightly pointed out, we were more open at Chelsea and Manchester United and lost. Neither were terrible displays, but we were a lot closer to getting something on Wednesday night, against a superior team, arguably the best in Europe at the moment. Those criticising Rafa Benitez and his tactics need to have a serious re-assessment of the situation and gain some perspective.

We spent £30 odd million in the summer, they spent £215 million. We had won 1 game in the last 10, they had won 17 in a row. Rafa did his absolute best to maximise his resources and give us a chance of getting something from the game.

I won’t apologise for that, least of all to the ‘sky’ monkeys. He is the best manager we have had in recent times and the only one who gives us a chance of some future success.

Finally, remember that in Steve McClaren’s only game against Man City, we played quite a positive attacking game in the first half and led through Mitrovic. We eventually lost 6-1. I dread to think what that City team would have done to a McClaren led Newcastle. I certainly know who I want in charge of this great club.

You can follow the author on Titter @JackLaceyHatton
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