Newcastle United’s wildcard has been played.
Just when the Magpies looked set to meekly bow out of the Premier League with their tails between their legs, they have pulled the rug on their relegation rivals by ousting Steve McClaren from his role as head coach and bringing in one of Europe’s most esteemed managers, Rafael Benitez, in his place.
The Spaniard had just three short days to work with the squad ahead of his maiden game in charge at Leicester City on Monday night, however, in spite of his dearth of time, Benitez immediately stamped his mark on the side, and, aside from the result, his initial impact gave cause for great optimism.
At the King Power Stadium, for perhaps the first time this season, Newcastle had a clear game plan to combat their opponents strengths, and they executed it diligently.
Led by their new boss as he orchestrated their every action from the technical area, the Magpies were compact, organised and defensively resolute, and, barring a moment of magic from Shinji Okazaki, they frustrated the league leaders on their home turf; rendering this season’s standout players Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy wholly ineffective by sitting deep and leaving no space between the lines.
Unfortunately, sorting out Newcastle’s surfeit of issues at both ends of the field in just 72 short hours would have been a miracle of biblical proportions, and a lack of cutting edge in the final third scuppered United’s chances of emerging from the game with the positive result that they merited for their endeavours.
However, with an extra week to work with the players ahead of Sunday’s momentous Tyne Wear derby, one would hope that Rafa and his backroom staff will complement the sturdy foundations they laid against The Foxes by formulating a more cohesive attacking strategy that will threaten the Sunderland goal with far greater regularity.
With both teams becoming perennial basement battlers in recent times, this game seems to take on even greater significance with each passing year, however, it increasingly appears as though this weekend’s result will dictate which North East side will preserve their Premier League status – along with scooping a fat slice of the 2016/17 campaign’s record-breaking £5.14bn television deal – and which side will be plying their trade in the football league for the foreseeable future.
Defeat for Newcastle will see them fall four points behind Sunderland with eight games remaining, a considerable gulf that they would find very difficult to breach with games fast running out and confidence at an all time low, whilst a first victory over The Black Cats in more than four years would propel United above their Wearside rivals and add serious momentum to Benitez’s unlikely rescue mission.
The stakes literally could not be higher, and a dugout showdown between long time adversaries Benitez and Allardyce adds another fascinating narrative to what is sure to be an explosive day of action at St James’ Park.
It’s sometimes easy to forget that beneath the deafening roars of noise, subplots, and waves of hysteria there is a 90 minute football match to be contested, however, one thing Rafa will not allow his team to do is play the occasion rather than the game.
Yes, this is not your average encounter – that much is blatantly clear – but getting wrapped up in the magnitude of the affair will distract from the job at hand, and Benitez’ strengths largely lie in getting his players to perform with their heads rather than their hearts.
Under McClaren, Newcastle foolishly tried to play a brand of attractive, expansive football that they simply did not have the resources to execute effectively; routinely going toe to toe with their better equipped Premier League rivals and being dismantled as punishment for their naivety. However, with Benitez at the helm, there will be no more of this.
Newcastle will not try to punch above their weight with a fanciful and impractical style of play, they will not mindlessly overflow into the opposition half and get caught on the break by fleet-footed opposition, and they will not lose games by five or six goals margins as a result of an ill-conceived, gung-ho approach which is high on style but low on substance.
Instead, the pragmatic Spaniard will look to get the Magpies’ house in order brick by brick, starting from the back.
In a previous interview with Liverpool’s official website, Benitez highlighted the weighty emphasis he places on defensive structure when he first moves to a new club; viewing it as the easiest area of the pitch to improve:
“The first priority is to improve defensive tactical play because this is less complicated than the attacking side and is important for success. The most important thing for me is to be organised. I work a lot on patterns of play and, of course, as the statistics prove, counter-attacks and set-plays are very important.”
This was already in evidence on Monday night, as Daryl Janmaat’s attacking instincts – which have cost Newcastle on several occasions this season – were reined in to the benefit of his defensive colleagues, and a side that has looked so disjointed in recent months impressively regrouped into position as soon as possession was surrendered; making life very difficult for Leicester City with two well drilled banks of four.
There’s a lot to be said for defensive solidarity when you’ve shipped 54 goals in 30 games and you’re sitting 19th in the Premier League table, and Benitez will be hoping that the seeds which were planted at the King Power Stadium continue to flourish over the coming weeks, although the Magpies still have to add an attacking threat to their game if they are to begin pulling away from danger.
Putting the ball in the back of the net has been a pressing concern of Newcastle’s for a majority of the 2015/16 campaign, with only bottom placed Aston Villa scoring fewer (22) than the Magpies’ 28 goals this season, and Benitez’s greatest challenge will arguably lie in inspiring a barren group of forwards to score the goals that will ensure United’s survival.
Georginio Wijnaldum carried the goalscoring torch from midfield throughout the first half of the season after his impressive start to life in English football, however, the goals have now dried up for the talented Dutchman; who is badly out of sorts and desperately trying to find his place in a struggling side.
Reinvigorating Gini will be crucial ahead of Sunday’s game, and a manager as scrupulous as Benitez will be acutely aware of the need to find a role that will maximise the impact of the Magpies’ most gifted player against Sunderland.
Thankfully, the former Liverpool boss is not unaccustomed to dealing with players that are bereft of confidence and struggling to find their role in the team.
Benitez arrived at Stamford Bridge in 2013 with Chelsea’s £50million record signing Fernando Torres hopelessly struggling for goals and form, yet he quickly engineered a system that allowed the forward to thrive at the top end of an attacking three and he duly fired The Blues to Europa League glory – he must do the same with Wijnaldum.
It will be fascinating to see how Benitez tries to mastermind a colossal Tyne Wear derby victory during his first home game in charge, but a manager of his pedigree is certainly more than capable of stopping the rot on such a grand occasion and kick-starting the Magpies’ late season survival campaign by piling the misery on their fiercest rivals.
Knowing that a point is a better result for them than their rivals, Sunderland are likely to set up to frustrate Newcastle in the early stages of Sunday’s game – much like they did prior to Fabricio Coloccini’s red card in October – and with set-piece specialist Wahbi Khazri now amongst their ranks alongside clinical finisher Jermain Defoe, the Wearsiders know they are always capable of snatching a goal against the run of play.
It will be up to Newcastle to find a way to break Allardyce’s side down, and you get the impression that the Magpies could potentially have some joy in the wide areas against DeAndre Yedlin and Van Aanholt; two full-backs who are much happier going forward than they are defending their own goal.
Newcastle are an unknown quantity under Rafael Benitez and, although recent derby performances don’t give much room for optimism, I saw enough on Monday night to convince me that we can get some long overdue revenge this weekend.
The feeling around the club has changed for the better, the mood of the fans has lifted, and on Monday night, the players’ performance was greatly improved – now it’s time for results to change.
Rafa’s arrival has galvanised a club that was sleepwalking towards The Championship, and with the players, crowd and management all pulling together in the right direction once again, Newcastle’s Premier League survival mission could lift off in spectacular fashion on Sunday.
Do you think Rafael Benitez can inspire Newcastle to Tyne Wear derby joy? Let us know over on on Twitter at @NUFC360!