I remain as in awe of the fact that Rafa Benitez is Newcastle United manager today as I was when he was appointed almost three years ago.
La Liga, UEFA cup, FA cup, Champions League, Europa League, Copa Italia, he is the most highly decorated and qualified manager ever to have taken the helm at Newcastle. There is nobody in world football that could not learn something from him.
This sense of awe in a manager had been missing in the Newcastle dressing room for at least a decade. The point is often made about players who earn more than their managers, that hold too much sway over their gaffer’s continued employment at clubs and few managers at St James Park have had the CV that could overcome those obstacles. Rafa does.
I would not have the gall to assume that I could ever second guess the man. If I ever caught myself wondering why he’d made a certain decision then I’d assume it was something I wasn’t seeing, rather than Rafa messing up.
Alan Pardew came to mind in the discussion that followed the Brighton game. Some booing was heard around the stadium when Benitez left what many perceived as a poorly performing Ayoze Perez on the pitch and instead sacrificed Muto to bring on Joselu. I’d written in the past about Pardew being a man that looks after himself, not his players. A short term thinker who has no consideration whatsoever in mind other than winning the points available on the day and claiming the credit for it. He’d start players that weren’t fully fit, he’d leave them on the pitch for longer than they should play if they wanted to be properly rehabilitated and he’d crow about knowing better than the doctors when it secured a point or three.
Rafa is the opposite, he thinks long term and he protects his players. Away from the passion of a game we all appreciate that Rondon will be more valuable to Newcastle over the many games he does play when fully fit, than the one game he might manage if rushed back.
Muto had picked up an ankle injury at Old Trafford a fortnight ago, maybe this was in the back of Rafa’s mind when he made the change, maybe it had always been a planned change. Either way, Muto still hasn’t played 90 minutes for Newcastle all season and his replacement shouldn’t have come as a shock.
But in the eagerness to get something from the game, the crowd vocally responded to the change. But shouldn’t we censor the disappointment felt because a player we want to see on the pitch gets replaced? Shouldn’t we concede that Rafa protecting his players to get the most from them long term is probably for the best? As we would if it was a decision explained in a press conference.
Everything that has been good in the last two years (promotion as champions and a top half finish all while turning a £30m transfer profit) has stemmed from the faith everyone at the club has in the manager.
I fear this faith being eroded by a minority keen to challenge minor decisions though. Even if you’re certain Rafa got it wrong, which I never am, is it more important to call him out than to let it slide and keep giving him the backing his record and his service to Newcastle deserve? Isn’t the gravitas he has at the club more potent than letting him know we disagree with a decision he made?
Even if you disagree with decisions and tell everyone you know as much, do you really value your opinion so highly above Rafa Benitez that you’re comfortable booing him publicly from the stands? Nobody can seriously want him removed from his position, can they? If so, do they have faith in Mike Ashley to appoint such a well qualified man again?
Another manager it made me think about is Arsene Wenger. The mounting opposition fans presented him witha fter all that he achieved for them appalled me, but worse, it became self-defeating by removing from his arsenal the greatest weapon Wenger had over players he wanted to run through walls for him, respect.
Mike Ashley deserves a massive amount of credit for harnessing everything positive I’ve said about Rafa above. Not only for appointing him (regardless of who initiated contact to enquire about him filling the vacancy) but also for retaining his services after relegation and handing him almost £60m of the £85m earned from selling Premier League players to re-invest in players that could win promotion from the championship.
I am not an Ashley absolutist, it does a critic no good to argue everything is bad because honest criticism weighs up good and bad and differentiates between the two. To name a few, in addition to the appointment of Rafa I’ve praised previous reinvestment of club funds, the interest free loans and the ticket price freezes to some extent.
However, Ashley’s motives for the appointment of Benitez, his appetite to retain his services and the lack of the support he’s given him, are all open to criticism because he is entirely responsible for removing the aura of respect that was previously there.
Ashley purposely misled Benitez, supporters and media by repeatedly insisting that the manager could look forward to getting “every penny” the club generated to move it forward, yet it has now been confirmed that he has repaid himself some amount of his loan this summer and fully intends to end the financial year with £33m of his loans satisfied.
That amount would have bought the striker the club are sorely lacking if the owner had sanctioned it. Instead we have a front four that cost a combined £16m, two of which are still being handled with kid gloves having signed in the fortnight before the first game of the season rather than getting a full pre-season with the manager.
Focusing any criticism on Benitez despite creating 27 shots against Brighton and not having a talented finisher available that could convert one of those to a goal, makes no sense to me whatsoever.