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Opinion

Why Mike Ashley needs to adopt this Liverpool transfer approach to keep Rafa Benitez

4 months ago
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As the Premier League season draws to a close, Newcastle United fans are still no closer to knowing whether their hugely popular manager, Rafa Benitez, will be at the helm next term. Benitez is locked in contract discussions which seem to have dragged on since the club’s inception in 1892.

The lack of success or even stability during Mike Ashley’s ownership of Newcastle has often been put down to a lack of investment in the playing squad. To an extent, this is true.

In the first ten years of Ashley’s regime, the club invested a paltry £6.4m per season on players. Peanuts by modern standards.

But worse than this, the sluggishness and procrastination of decision-makers at Newcastle means that Benitez has in the past been forced to buy third or fourth choice players rather than those he’s identified early. A case in point was the arrival of Joselu from Stoke in 2017. Joselu had been low on Benitez’ list of targets, and £5m is unlikely to land a Premier League quality striker from another top flight club. His return of six goals in 49 appearances confirms that suspicion.

As well as transfer guarantees, Benitez has repeatedly requested that the club’s Little Benton academy and training ground be upgraded. Benitez is a coach first and foremost – he takes the greatest pleasure in improving players. But he needs the facilities to do it.

Newcastle has a unique opportunity that will exist for perhaps only one or two more seasons. Of the North East clubs, Sunderland are in League One, while Middlesbrough have missed out on the Championship play-offs. Newcastle will remain the overwhelmingly pre-eminent club in the region for a little while longer, and should be using that status to pull in local talent.

Southampton’s academy benefited from Portsmouth’s mismanagement and Bournemouth’s lowly status in the mid-2000s. Players like Walcott, Bale, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Clyne were not only produced by the Saints academy, but enticed to join in the first place by the fact that Southampton was by far the biggest club in the area. Regional hegemony needs to be capitalised upon by sending scouts into rival clubs’ territories and funnelling the best local youth prospects through the best academy set-up possible. Those players then need to be given the chance to succeed in the first team and investment in their quality from a young age would make this all the more likely.

Scouting is another area in which Newcastle sorely need to improve. It remains true that scouts are hugely important to both academy development and success in the transfer market. But the modern way needs to be about more than watching a player a couple of times and going with your gut. An analytical approach, with statistics pored over to identify the right kind of player, is key to extracting value. The talent is out there but there needs to be investment in the right sort of tactical analysis to unlock. An analytical approach to talent acquisition is not a cure-all but a long-term plan to bring in the right ‘sort’ of players is imperative.

At Liverpool, the £22m transfer of Roberto Firmino was dismissed as a waste of money by the ‘proper football men’ – he’d scored only ten goals in his final season for Hoffenheim. The transfer was identified by Liverpool’s analytics team – the “laptop gurus in air-conditioned offices”, and his ball-winning statistics made him stand out. Firmino made 37 interceptions and 88 tackles in the 2014-15 Bundesliga season. For comparison, Raheem Sterling has made 16 interceptions and 32 tackles for Manchester City this season and his defensive contribution has been excellent. Add to that the distance Firminho covered on the pitch and his passing accuracy (2.1 key passes per game, 12 assists for Hoffenheim) and it’s clear he was exactly the right player for the kind of front-line Liverpool were looking to build. When Jurgen Klopp joined as manager, he had a ready-made gegenpressing expert to call upon. Long term planning pays off.

Newcastle should take this sort of approach when looking to build a squad in the transfer market, as well as training up youngsters from the academy. This is an approach that goes further than the repeated raids on the French leagues they tried in the past, attempting to take advantage of market inefficiencies. It’s true that players in Ligue Un are often undervalued. However, the trick couldn’t be repeated after the initial glut of successful players brought in in 2012 (Cabaye, Tiote, Ba, Cisse, Ben Arfa) had been moved on. The players that replaced them seemed to be ‘YouTube signings’ rather than players who would fit into a planned dynamic, where character and playing style is almost as important as goals scored or chances created. There needs to be a structure in place, working with the manager, to put these plans into action.

Ashley has favoured the ‘director of football’ model in the past but must resist the temptation to appoint another charlatan to the position. Kevin Keegan’s recent autobiography details the farce that was Dennis Wise’s time in the role: derisory bids for players the club had no chance of attracting (including for peak-era Bastian Schweinsteiger), whilst selling off its best players for knock-down fees. Tony Jimenez and Joe Kinnear have also occupied the position without any success to speak of. One can only assume that the current set-up, which sees Benitez frustrated so often, is run in much the same way.

Newcastle’s CEO Lee Charnley is paid only a £150,000 basic per year – a level on par with the chairman of Gillingham. Clearly, he doesn’t have the required skill set to operate in the transfer market. This kind of expertise doesn’t come cheap – Sven Mislintat was being paid £4m per year at Arsenal. But surely investing £4m in planning is better than wasting £40m on poor players? There’s nothing to stop Newcastle bringing in a team of analysts rather than one all-powerful guru. In fact, this is a model Benitez would probably be more comfortable working with. Not scouts per sé, but individuals immersed in statistics, analytics and market inefficiencies like those at Liverpool.

There is also nothing wrong with being a selling club – many make this model work for them. The key is having the solid foundations in place that enable you to repeat the trick (like an Ajax or a Porto) rather than self-immolate after one successful season as Newcastle did post-2012. If Newcastle were producing a Declan Rice, an Aaron Wan-Bissaka or indeed, another Sean Longstaff every season, making one or two shrewd acquisitions, and then selling them on a couple of years later for astronomical fees, this would surely tick many boxes. Benitez would get to work with excellent, exciting young players, the fans would see quality local lads wearing the black-and-white stripes every week, and Ashley’s balance sheet would look very healthy indeed.

This is about more than transfers and certainly about more than spending big money. It’s about making a relatively small initial investment in the structure of the club, and fostering a culture that all players and staff buy into. In Rafa Benitez, Newcastle have a coach who takes great pleasure in improving individuals and building a team that is more than the sum of its parts. It’s time to give him the tools to do this, and achieve something the fans can be proud of.

If Benitez walks next week – and who could blame him if he did – it will be because of restrictions placed on the club by an owner who needs to see the bigger picture.

(Graeme also has his own website which you can visit here.)

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