A lifelong Newcastle United fans view on how Rafa Benitez’s negativity has been as big of a detriment to his teams performance and the negativity of the city as Mike Ashley has this campaign.
Firstly we need to forget Mike Ashley, he’s here and probably will still be here for a lot longer. We’re all united in the fact we hate him and want him out of our club. We’re all united in agreeing that he could spend more money on the playing squad. However, what I view to currently not be united is the relationship between Rafa Benitez, his coaching team and his current playing squad. And also, us as fans, and the current playing squad. I’m now going to go into a little bit of detail as to why I believe this to be the case.
TRUST, BELIEF AND CONFIDENCE
I’ll take you back to the summer transfer window after the promotion season. Rafa Benitez has been coming out all summer long in every press outlet he can get his hands on demanding a new centre forward. This to me was a disgrace to the man who just fired 23 league goals the season previous to get us back in the Premier League. Can you imagine how you would feel as Dwight Gayle if you’ve just had the season of your career and fired your team to the Championship title only to be told you’re now not good enough to make the step back up to the Premier League. This was completely and utterly the wrong thing to do in my opinion. We had a good centre forward at the club already and if anything he should have been coming out in the press and saying well we’ve got a great scorer of goals here who can keep us in the division but we need some competition to push him for his place because he’s only going to get better and better. Every good centre forward needs loving. Just because you move up a division doesn’t mean you now lose your instinct for goal, your movement and your timing. I believe confidence to be a major part in centre forward play and I feel like had Gayle been shown more love and encouragement both by his manager and the fans, he would still be here today scoring goals for the club. It’s no surprise to me that he’s once again banging them in for West Brom this time round. Furthermore, I still feel like although he only managed 6 Premier League goals last season he had a very good campaign. He was part of a team that finished 10th in the league and was 2nd top scorer behind Ayoze Perez who only managed 8 himself. His all round hassling of defenders, running the channels, moving people around, creating space for others was imperative to the way we played football and made us such a better team than we are now. I would still have him here over Rondon in a heart beat, he offers so much more to the way we play. I am a fan of Rondon, he’s doing everything he can and running himself into the ground every game, as well as chipping in with some very important goals, but I just feel that with the personnel in the rest of the team we are better suited to playing a more mobile, smaller striker. We aren’t stretching teams as often as we did last season, we haven’t got the mobility behind Rondon to use him as a target man and play from there. We are playing infront of teams far too often and making ourselves easy to defend against. The biggest example of trust issues and installing confidence in players to go out and express themselves I can think of during Benitez’s tenure as manager is this whole centre forward/Gayle saga. Also with the sale of some players he lacked trust in that were arguably the most talented of the bunch at that time, such as Chancel Mbemba and Kevin Mbabu I feel like with more belief and confidence in people to go and enjoy themselves we’d be such a better outfit.
Now fast forward to today’s transfer market and his dealings with the press as of late. Saying it will be a miracle if we stay up is just an absolute no go for me. I can’t imagine how I’d feel if my manager was telling me that he didn’t believe I’d be able to do my job properly before the end of my shift and he was thinking of bringing in someone new to do it for me. Saying we need this, this and this. You have to do that behind closed doors and with the people in charge, not make your players fully aware that you feel they’re not good enough. I personally feel the current squad is very capable of staying in the division comfortably. You can’t tell me there’s not at least 4 teams with worse squads than ours. Players such as Craig Cathcart and Tom Cleverley are scoring goals at the weekend to give their side wins. You can’t tell me you’d be having a song and a dance about it if either of those players played for us. There’s a tonne of distinctly average footballers in the Premier League but they are well coached in good sides, with good positive managers who look to play in the right way. If we were more positive, we would be performing better, it’s a fact. You only have to look at teams such as Bournemouth and Brighton to see what a way of thinking how can we hurt the opposition can do to a players and teams confidence. Even good players suffer a loss in confidence and belief through negativity. You only have to look at the recent turnaround in Manchester United to see that. And on a smaller scale Southampton even. I’m not advocating that we should be looking to sack Rafa or even saying that we could ever get anyone better, but I just feel with a change of attitude and the way he deals with things in the media he could lift the playing squad and even the pessimism of the whole city. This brings me on nicely to my next point.
NEGATIVE TACTICS AND PLAYERS OUT OF POSITION
I have to start with the sudden change to a 5–4–1/5–3–1–1/5–3–2. Whatever on earth it is. It’s a mess. A discombobulated shambles of a system. It’s too deep in the defensive phase. It’s too slow in the transition phase and it’s too direct in the attacking phase. It’s all wrong, wrong, wrong. It worked once in an away game at Burnley, a direct team who look to hit their target men and play off the second balls. We defended brilliantly that night in our 2 deep blocks. Won every first duel, and a whole bunch of seconds. 2 set piece goals and we ran out 2–1 winners. I’m totally fine with that, against them, that was good tactics, well done. What I refuse to understand is why we persist on playing it at home against teams we should be going after from the get go. The atmosphere is dull in that place. I’ve been a season ticket holder since god knows when and I can’t ever remember it being this boring and negative. Teams used to know that if they kept us quiet for 20 minutes by breaking things up and giving silly fouls away we’d become disgruntled and their team would probably walk away with the points. They don’t even have to do that now, we are literally handing them the initiative and conceding possession and ground to them. The lack of noise stems from the lack of action. This is St James’ Park, 52,000 strong, every week. Get on the front foot and give us something to shout about. We have failed to score a goal at home in 4 games this season. We’ve only played 11. Unacceptable. We failed to register a shot on target against Fulham who hadn’t kept a clean sheet all season. Unacceptable. This is Newcastle United, we’re entertainers. We’re not any more. I sit here today and as I look through the fixtures this season I can see 8 results out of 24 competitive games that I consider to be good. They are:
Crystal Palace [A] 0–0 a good point at a tough place to go
Southampton [A] 0–0 a good point at a tough place to go
Watford [H] 1–0 a good win, but one I’d expect
Bournemouth [H] 2–1 a good win, but one I’d expect
Burnley [A] 1–2 a great away win in tough conditions against a tough side
Everton [A] 1–1 a great away point against a good side
Huddersfield [A] 0–1 a win away against a very poor side, one I’d expect
Watford [A] 1–1 a good away point against a decent side
If I were to forget our league position and performance, and summarise Rafa Benitez’s performance tactically by results on paper I would say he’s underachieving and not even close to overachieving.
Now I’d like to go back to the players he is using in certain areas of the pitch and question why? And again touch on trust.
Firstly, I think we’ve gone to this 5 back formation all of a sudden because he doesn’t trust any of his defenders in a pairing. Schar is rash, Lascelles is very poor on the ball, Dummett isn’t the most mobile of full backs or has ever played in centre half in a back 4. Fernandez has arguably looked the best but has a tendency to dive in also. We need to get back to a back 4, why change what was making you overachieve last season. The players were comfortable with it, they were enjoying it. Combinations and pairs on the field were looking good. Get back to basics 4–4–1–1.
Nextly, Matt Ritchie is not, nor ever will be, EVER, a left wing back. He’s 4 foot nowt, he doesn’t stop crosses, he doesn’t possess electric pace, why on earth is he being asked to play this role? Not to mention he’s arguably the most technically gifted player in the squad and you’d want him as high up the pitch as possible to effect the game in a positive manner. He can’t be enjoying his football. You can tell by the way he came out in the press the other week and said he feels as though everyone thinks it’s game over once we concede. He just wants to be up the pitch fighting to prove that’s not the case. Not taking up centre half positions in a deep back 5 like he was against Chelsea on Saturday night. He’s not used to it and it’s a mess.
Futhermore, the midfield shape is all wrong. Now I’m not a Premier League manager but asking Ayoze Perez and Christian Atsu to sit in a narrow midfield 4 and then attempt to burst out into a second striker area is not my idea of good tactics. Atsu has been one bright spark, he’s actually carried out his instructions really well. Perez on the other hand is not comfortable at all playing the role he’s been asked to play. He’s taken an absolute battering from fans this season and it’s completely unfair. He plays wherever he’s asked and tries his best every game. He’s low on confidence and isn’t enjoying his football because of the roles he’s being asked to play in my opinion. You as a fan need to stop taking him for granted because he is actually only one of a few players who’s asked to get ahead of the ball and is capable of scoring and creating goals, therefore, if we are to stay in the division he will have a big part to play and he needs your support. He also needs his manager to realise how tactically inept he has been for months and to start playing him in his proper position again.
Our next home game is arguably one of the biggest games in recent history. Cardiff. A tough, battling outfit, 1 spot above us in the league. We should, as fans, manager, staff, players, all be confident of winning this one. We have to get back to a back 4 and control possession and press from minute 1. On paper they have the worst squad in the league, they will make mistakes. We’ve got to be confident and it’s got to come from Rafa and his staff. They have to wake up and smell the coffee. We’re not hard to beat any more, we’re conceding from crosses and direct passes. We have to revert to what made us successful last year.
My last point is a plea to the fans. The negativity of the tactics is enough to make you want to cry. But the negativity from the stands has to stop. Playing football at St James’ Park must be the most frustrating thing in the world at times. If we can’t effect the tactics, then let’s effect what we can. The atmosphere. I understand these people are paid a lot of money to do what they love, and that they should be putting on a better show for us. But they’re also human beings. Hurling abuse at them every time they lose the ball or miss a shot isn’t going to help anybody. I’m not the biggest of singing fans, that’s not my personality, but I refuse to boo or yell abuse at someone in the black and white. I encourage through shouting positive things and loud clapping. Granted, I can’t be heard from my seat, but the next man can hear me, and the man next to him can hear him. Altogether, we can be heard. Ayoze Perez has reverted to sticking his fingers in his ears when he celebrates a goal, a direct message to you that your battering of him is nonsensory. He’s not shit and he doesn’t deserve to be dropped. If that’s your opinion keep it away from the stadium, no one wants to hear it. Paul Dummett is also a player who takes an unnecessary battering. We all want to see a Geordie come through and all we demand is a team that tries. Well those 2 epitomise that, so let’s start supporting them. Starting Saturday vs Cardiff. I’m predicting a tight nervy game. 1–0 to the mags.
Thanks for reading, take care.