Many column inches were written and many a word was spoken about the supposed Rafa Benitez negative tactics against Citeh, in both our home and away games over the festive and new year period.
Not least the voice of the odious Gary Neville, who seemed disappointed that we didn’t just lie down and let the 850million Euro juggernaut score to their heart’s content.
The tactics Rafa chose – and almost pulled off – were to sit back and hope for a goal on the break. This didn’t transpire and we lost both games – 0-1 at St James Park and 3-1 at the Etihad.
Given how tight it is from 10th to 19th in the league, a goal difference of -2 over those two games may yet be the difference between survival and relegation at the end of the season. There are a good few teams who will come out with a worse goal difference than us come May and it may well be largely about how they fared against the Sky Blues: West Brom -4, Crystal Palace -5, Watford -8. Stoke are on -5 with a game to play, Swansea with -4. Our next opposition, Bournemouth, are on -5.
By no means will the two games against Manchester City be the only factor in the final goals tally, but our two games don’t look too shabby in this context and should we survive on GD (hopefully it won’t come to that) Rafa’s tactics will have to be seen as a masterstroke.
It’s the failure of pundits to see this larger picture that is really frustrating – but what is worse is when another team pulls the same stunt and is lauded for their approach.
The difference, of course, is the other team to adopt the same approach ran out 1-0 winners – I refer of course to Wigan. Largely assisted by a generous refereeing decision to send their opponents down to ten men and a gift by Kyle Walker, Wigan pulled off a fantastic result. No one gave them a chance before the match and it’s a great football story.
One can only wonder had we been offered the same numerical advantage for 45 minutes and a slice of dodgy defending what could have happened (although time has taught me that NUFC are very capable of turning even the easiest game into a war of attrition, so to beat a ten-man City side would be no foregone conclusion).
But the tactics employed by Paul Cook were straight out of Rafa’s playbook and are reflected in the statistics –
Stats for possession and shots:
27 December 2017
Newcastle v Man City (22% and 78%, 6 and 22)
20 January 2018
Man City v Newcastle (81% and 19%, 21 and 6)
19 February 2018
Wigan v Man City (17% and 83%, 4 and 29)
One could argue that we should have given Man City a better run for their money than a League One side managed – but other much better teams than us had stood toe to toe with them and received a pasting – Leicester being the latest to spend most of their match retrieving the ball from their own net.
The truth is that we didn’t have and don’t have the quality to have approached the matches in any other way – we are not Liverpool. Any domestic team to beat Man City this year needs to either put in the performance of their lives and/or enjoy a large slice of good fortune. Wigan got both, we didn’t.
But the result from last night further vindicates Benitez’ approach in our league matches and, had luck been with us, we could have walked away with more than nul points and a comparatively respectable goal difference.