Saturday finished Newcastle 1 Watford 0.
A game where despite three enforced substitutions through injury and Watford dominating the opening hour, Rafa’s players emerged victorious.
The first win of the season and a result that at least temporarily lifts Newcastle out of the relegation zone.
The Editor asked me beforehand to write about 3 positives and 3 negatives from the game.
Howay, let’s all take one collective sigh of relief and do this, it feels good to start with those positives.
We won an actual game of football
Let’s start with the obvious, today really was must win. If we had lost again today, it would be tough to see any way back for us, even at this relatively early point in the season.
Thankfully we don’t have to worry about that, tree points are in the bag and we can savour something positive at last. We may only be just out of the bottom three but it’s a psychological game changer for both players and staff. Hopefully giving them the confidence to build a little run of form.
It didn’t matter in the slightest that it wasn’t the prettiest three points, or that Watford hit the crossbar. An hour before the game I couldn’t get rid of the thought that we simply just needed some luck.
Since the Leicester game I don’t think we have actually played particularly badly and certainly have had zero in the way of good fortune. Sometimes you just need something to go your way and today we got it. In previous games the brilliant whipped free-kick from Ki would have hit Perez on the shoulder but a few inches makes all the difference. Even at the end we afforded Watford that one big chance, but once again rode our luck, today at last it came off.
Ki Sung-yeung at last came to the party
The last few weeks I have wondered where our South Korean playmaker had gone. He seemed to disappear off the face of the earth for the start of last month, not even making the bench for a few games. On Saturday though Ki Sung-yeung finally influenced a game for the Mags.
Not only did he produce a match-winning magical free-kick, it was his drive and energy that started to put Watford on the back foot after the Hornets had looked much the more likely to score in the first 45. His off the ball dart into the area won the free-kick which led to the goal. A heroic effort from the South-Korean who had not played 90 minutes since the defeat to Man City on September 1st. We need our summer signings to start contributing more, so one of yesterday’s main positives has to be Ki.
He had threatened to look like a positive signing at the start of the season, looking decent in the Chelsea game where we probably should have nicked a point. It has taken until now for him to have a major impact but hopefully Ki can kick on and come into a bit of form, at a time when our midfield is crying out for players to take the game to opposition and create chances, particularly if Shelvey’s injury keeps him on the shelf for a few weeks.
This team won’t roll over easily
Perhaps the only real positive from the last few weeks before yesterday, was the grit and determination shown by Rafa’s boys. Say what you like about this team lacking quality, we can all see that pretty clearly. What this group does have though is grit, determination and real steel. In fact they’ve got it by the bucket load. They know how to keep games tight through sheer defensive work rate, an often underrated trait.
It sounds obvious, but this group goes way beyond what we have had in recent years in terms of attitude alone. The 2-0 defeat to Leicester remains the only time this season we have lost by more than one goal, a stat highlighting how this group will always keep it as close as possible and not wave the white flag.
Shelvey, Muto and Lascelles all withdrawn before the hour due to injury, ensured Rafa was kept busy with constant readjustments. We managed to get through with the win, but the real cost could come in the next few weeks if the injuries prove to be fairly serious. For a side already lacking any consistent creativity, a prolonged absence of Shelvey doesn’t bear thinking about, even if you share my opinion that for much of this season he has not been at the races.
Muto has shown glimpses of excellent displays in recent weeks and just looked to be starting to adjust to the physical demands of English football. In a striker department already lacking in numbers, we really can’t afford to lose any forwards right now. Yes even Joselu.
Lascelles may have had an odd week after his Ashley comments but surely no one can doubt how important our skipper is on the pitch. The goals against column took a battering last season when Jamal was out injured for a prolonged period. We couldn’t really afford him out last season. We definitely cannot afford him out for more than a game or two this season.
Admittedly, the players that came on yesterday showed superb effort and courage. Schar looks a proper player and was outstanding at the back, while as mentioned before Ki’s introduction changed the game. The squad though is too brittle to cope with any key injuries. Fingers crossed they are all available as soon as possible to give Rafa some much-needed selection headaches.
Still lacking a cutting edge
Bar that incredible start at Old Trafford, for most of our games this season we have looked unconvincing in front of goal and it’s hard to argue that wasn’t the case yesterday. The desperation in the team and around the ground meant that it didn’t really matter where the goal came from. When the dust settles though, that’s the third successive home game without a goal from open play. Rondon should have changed this when he headed Kenedy’s cross wide, failing to hit the target from a great position.
It’s a difficult job being the lone striker in Rafa’s rigid 4-2-3-1, but our Venezuelan striker has to make the best of the scraps he is afforded, if he is to provide a reasonable goal return this season.
If we are to seriously have a decent chance of now getting some momentum and pulling away from the bottom three, the firepower upfront will have to get going at some point. With Joselu still looking unconvincing in recent weeks, the need for Rondon to be fit and firing has become even more obvious. A goal in front of the Gallowgate could have done him the world of good yesterday. Here’s hoping he can get back on the scoresheet over the next couple of games.
Another game we were second best
It is perhaps understandable that Watford created more chances than us yesterday. We were desperate for a win, they were possibly slightly relaxed after a flying start which means they are as far away from the relegation battle as they could possibly hope for.
Knowing the limitations of the squad Rafa has at his disposal we should expect a number of games this season where playing on the counter is our best chance of victory. This though was our 11th game of the campaign and in probably 8 or 9 of those games we have been second best for large periods. I still get the feeling the confidence will only truly come through the players once they start to take games to the opposition.
When we attacked freely in the opening stages at Old Trafford, you could almost feel the confidence begin to flow through the team. It would be nice to see us take the game to the opposition at some point over the next few weeks and Bournemouth at home next week could be the perfect fixture. The team started well against Brighton and were quite unlucky not to get an early goal, if we could finally get a quick start at SJP next Saturday it could a season turning moment.
It goes without saying that Rafa is one of the shrewdest managers in the division, but even he knows at some point we will need to get on the front foot and control a few games, particularly at home. Otherwise, it is going to be very difficult to generate the points needed for survival. One tight home win against Watford will not be enough, now the ‘first win’ monkey is off the back, hopefully the lads can kick on and actually be the better team next weekend.
It’s been so long since the last win though, that this doesn’t feel like a day for negatives, just savour that winning feeling again.
Stats from BBC Sport:
Newcastle 1 Watford 0
Goal: Perez 65
Possession was Watford 58% Newcastle 42%
Total shots were Watford 16 Newcastle 10
Shots on target were Watford 1 Newcastle 2
Corners were Watford 9 Newcastle 8
Referee: Craig Pawson
Dubravka, Yedlin, Lascelles (Schar 45), Fernandez, Dummett, Ritchie, Diame, Shelvey (Ki 51), Kenedy, Rondon, Muto (Perez 45+2)
Darlow, Joselu, Manquillo, Atsu
Crowd: 49,157 (Watford approx 1,500)
(Thousands of Newcastle fans didn’t miss much apart from a win! – Read HERE)
(Instant NUFC fan/writer reaction to Newcastle 1 Watford 0 – Read HERE)
(Javi Gracia can’t believe how his Watford side didn’t win, never mind get beat – Read HERE)
(Graeme Swann video message for Rafa Benitez after Newcastle win – See HERE)
(Charlie Nicholas dissects Newcastle 1 Watford 0 – Read HERE)
(Rafa Benitez post-match verdict – Read HERE)
You can follow the author on Twitter @JackLaceySport