The Season In Review
At the start of the 2017-18 campaign, Newcastle United fans were only hoping for three things: first, Premier League survival; second, that Mike Ashley would sell the club to someone who actually wants it; third, that Rafa Benítez would still be the Magpies’ manager at the close of play. Despite looking chronically short of top-level quality, they achieved their first aim with plenty of time to spare, largely down to Benítez’s mastery in the dugout and on the training pitch. Ashley still hasn’t sold up and doubts remain over the club’s managerial future as much as ever, but one expects answers to those long-term questions over the coming weeks.
Were it not for Ashley’s parsimoniousness and his inability to simply go away, Newcastle would arguably be in a splendid state: a distinctly un-Newcastle state of unanimous positivity has characterised the St James’ Park faithful this season, as total faith in the manager and his decisions has become overwhelming support for the home side and their players. Figures like Jonjo Shelvey, Paul Dummett and Mohamed Diamé, who had angered the fans with continued poor performances or questionable, destructive outbursts, have earned the fans’ forgiveness and admiration through Benítez’s support and instruction.
The highlights of the season will undoubtedly be remembered as the home victories over Manchester United and Arsenal, enormous results which came off the back of titanic performances, just when Newcastle most needed three points. Those victories have confirmed that the Magpies’ ceiling is indeed much higher than their league position suggests, and have only increased the fans’ desperation to see further investment in the playing squad. If Benítez can beat the big boys with a Championship squad, he deserves the funds to see how far he can truly lead the team.
Apart from Benítez, who now towers over Newcastle in almost the same way Sir Bobby Robson and Alan Shearer did, the stars of the season will be Jamaal Lascelles, magnificent at the back, Shelvey, whose development has been such that many observers have suggested he go to the World Cup with England, and on-loan goalkeeper Martin Dúbravka, whose heroics between the sticks have made him a cult hero and assured his future as Newcastle’s number one.
In terms of disappointments, it’s certainly true that no Newcastle striker has truly convinced this season. Joselu and Dwight Gayle have tried and on occasion offered penetration but neither has posed anything like a Sheareresque threat. Islam Slimani has the quality to lead the line, but never quite found fitness, making his loan acquisition in January all the more baffling.
The Summer Ahead
Everything depends on Mike Ashley’s ability to sell the club and to do so as quickly as possible, providing greater funds and more time to spend them. It’s hardly a stretch of the imagination to predict Rafa Benítez seeing that no more money will be made available over the summer and then walking away at the start of June to take over at Southampton, or at Leicester, or at West Ham, or at any other club which will offer more money and better chances of success than those available at St James’ Park.
As Benítez has said all season, he can’t keep working miracles. The squad is weak across the board, full of hard-working but limited Championship quality players, and the short-term aim of securing mid-table stability has been achieved once, but to ask for the same again is asking a hell of a lot. It’s no secret that Ashley has limited funds so much that last summer Newcastle were outbid by the likes of Brighton & Hove Albion and Huddersfield Town for players. Such a situation at a club of Newcastle’s size cannot be allowed to continue.
It’s a Rafa Benítez team and everyone knows how Rafa Benítez teams set out. Newcastle set up in a deep 4-2-3-1 and aim to keep compact and organised off the ball, before attacking into space at transitions, typically down the flanks but not exclusively. Benítez’s buzzword has always been ‘balance’ and his teams are perfectly weighted to accomplish various aims on and off the ball.
It’s a flexible philosophy which allows teams to punch massively above their weight, and as the Man Utd and Arsenal games showed, there are plenty of reasons to believe that when the Newcastle team has the quality to match Benítez’s as a manager, good times will be ahead on Tyneside. Chelsea must guard against the same kind of complacency that infected Mourinho’s and Wenger’s teams as they arrived in the North East, but given the Blues’ recent performances and Antonio Conte’s team selections, perhaps we should expect that very same careless attitude.
Unsurprisingly, given Benítez’s famous fastidiousness, Newcastle are very clear in their objectives and how they’re going to achieve them, and no-one is left in any doubt as to their role or their responsibilities within that role. They generally play reactively and work really hard off the ball, and have made 16.9 tackles per game, 11.4 interceptions per game and 10.8 fouls per game, all way above the league average. No team has blocked more than Newcastle’s 9.3 passes per game, while only two teams have blocked more crosses. Getting through to the Newcastle goal, generally speaking, isn’t easy.
In the middle of the park, natural passers Jonjo Shelvey and Mikel Merino have real quality on the ball and a splendid eye for a defence-splitter. Shelvey is the more spectacular of the two, with gigantic, booming cross-field switches routinely catching the eyes, but Merino’s maturity and ability to dictate games will arguably see him go further. It’s no surprise that he’s been compared to Xabi Alonso. Matt Ritchie has provided much of the Magpies’ cut and thrust from the wing, working well with the overlapping DeAndre Yedlin. Unfortunately, there’s little comparable quality in other areas.
Their biggest weakness, apart from toxic ownership, is their relative lack of individual quality. Chelsea know that if they work as hard as Newcastle they’ll beat them, because they’re simply that much better. The danger is that Chelsea, very much on the beach to all intents and purposes, simply won’t work as hard as Newcastle, and if they don’t then they’ll go the same way as Man Utd and Arsenal.
Benítez doesn’t have that many options but Javier Manquillo may be preferred to DeAndre Yedlin at right-back, while Mo Diamé could come in for Mikel Merino in the middle.
As for Chelsea, let’s hope Conte goes back to the 3-4-2-1 and consigns his stupid 3-5-1-1 to the history books.
Newcastle 1-0 Chelsea. Sigh.