There is little doubt the effect Rafa Benitez has had on our football club since first arriving in March 2016.
He has been backed to the hilt from the moment he walked through the door from everyone in the stands, shame the boardroom doesn’t follow suit.
He has been put up with Keegan and Robson as one of the great Newcastle managers of modern times and I think I am safe in saying few of us would disagree. What is intriguing about the comparison though is that Rafa’s style of football is arguably on the other end of the spectrum to Keegan’s philosophy of football- which can be boiled down to ‘attack at all costs’. Even Robson, whilst not been at the Keegan level of attacking approach, would be seen by most as a far less defensive manager than Benitez.
Rafa is pragmatic to the core, and always focused on keeping a game as tight as possible, even if this means sacrificing potential attacking weapons. Putting the need for tight matches into context, in the first half of his spell with us (the last 10 games of 15-16 & his first full season) we only lost by more than one goal on three occasions (Wolves, Fulham & Ipswich, all in the Championship season). Even bringing in last season in the Premier League there were only six occasions we lost by more than one goal. This is no coincidence.
In our short dark 15 months under Carver & McClaren, we were involved in 15 games where we lost by more than one goal. This shift toward focusing on getting the defensive structure right, has given us the platform to return and survive in the Premier League. To me there is nothing wrong with this footballing philosophy.
Recently, I read a pre-international break review from fans of all twenty premier league clubs. As part of the standard survey of questions, each fan was asked “What is the (insert club name) way.” In other words, what is your club’s overall footballing philosophy?
The Newcastle fan who was asked, responded with “Scintillating attacking football built around number nines who’ll bang the goals in, week in, week out”, which to many is a fair answer.
It is worth noting though that the majority of the other clubs also responded with either of the words ‘attacking’ or ‘attractive’, at the core of their assumed philosophy. Very few seemed to actually pose realistic responses.
Of course, as football fans we all want to see our club winning, and if they can do it playing exciting ‘sexy’ football, then even better. The reality is though few clubs are able to stick to traditions of possession or attacking based philosophies. Even West Ham, one of the few clubs that seemed to be able to have a genuine claim to such traditions, are now mocked among some fans of rival clubs for banging on about ‘the West Ham way’. Only a few seemed to be realistic in their clubs traditions. The Leicester City fan described the Foxes way as “Fast, frenetic, direct and in-your-face: I like to call it ‘wasp football.” This was probably as honest an assessment as we got, with no mention of possession or attractive football.
It is forgotten that the most attractive football of all is surely winning?
Is this really such a big problem? A point I have consistently made, each time Rafa’s tactics against Man City take a bashing, is that there are hundreds of different ways to win a football match and not one should be considered right above all others. That’s what makes the game endlessly intriguing particularly at the highest level. To me, little is wrong with defensive tactics and getting a stable base to play from when it gets results. And it was certainly the foundation for our quite remarkable 10th place finish last season. It should be also worth pointing out that when looking at the wider history of our club – attacking, entertaining football has only relatively rarely graced SJP.
Of course, the major exception is the brilliant era of the first Keegan reign and perhaps the amount of supporters brought up on this brand of football is now felt when so many of that generation talk of a history of attacking, entertaining, gung-ho football.
If your first memory of a Newcastle match was in the early nineties I can understand this viewpoint, but for many it’s not the case. My uncle, who was up for the Brighton game, commented that only 8-9 of his 50 years supporting Newcastle have seen predominantly attacking football, and for fans of that generation an attractive style seems less relevant. Even Joe Harvey, a club legend and the last manager to deliver a major trophy to St James Park, produced sides that were fundamentally hard-working, but not focused on being seen as easy on the eye. The brilliance of Malcolm Macdonald in the early seventies probably flatters the legacy of the team style-wise, mainly because Macdonald was not only a brilliant scorer of goals but also scored some absolutely beautiful goals, particularly when Terry Hibbitt was also involved.
Herein lies a part of ‘the Newcastle way’ most of us would agree on. Regardless of the tactical style and technical ability of the team, we are headed by a powerful, ruthless number nine up front. This is our history and tradition, and the manager of Newcastle United, whoever it is, should always try and accommodate this in the team. In the present-day Newcastle United it seems lacking. Salamon Rondon appears a potentially useful loan signing, but has not been on the pitch anywhere near enough to satisfy the traditions of a Newcastle number nine. Having him back may be a good step to Rafa working a way to get us off the foot of the table.
I know the supporters at all football clubs appear to be changing, but when I am in the heart of the ground as I was on Saturday for the Brighton game, I don’t believe the people around me are turning up expecting or demanding a team relentlessly attacking from minute one. Most of us are sharp enough to realise it is not possible with the current squad anyway, thanks to underinvestment.
For me, the crowd still has a core wish to see effort and grit. They can cope with people giving the ball away and trying things that don’t come off. What we want to see is the eleven in black and white run as hard as possible for ninety minutes, and to be honest, I believe the current crop is at least doing that.
The question of the philosophy is an important one, as one day Mike Ashley will no longer own our football club, the traditions and values of club and city will outlast him. As my favourite banner from a few seasons ago said, “we don’t demand a team that wins, we demand a club that tries.. The effort to win above everything else, maybe that really is ‘the Newcastle way’.
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