By David de Winter – Sports Editor
‘How not to run a football club.’ This would surely be the title of Newcastle United’s memoirs of the last 10 years. They are the gift that keeps on giving – a soap opera that is so unbelievable that one does not know whether to laugh or cry, or both. They are a source of constant ridicule, lurching from one preposterous crisis to another, on and off the pitch. But does this story have a happy ending or tragic denouement?
The Toon have decided to dispense with the services of manager Steve McClaren and bring in Champions League-winning coach Rafael Benitez. The Spaniard has a mixed record, combining some incredible highs at Valencia, Liverpool and Napoli with some inauspicious lows at Inter Milan and Real Madrid, from whom he was sacked earlier this season.
Although it is real coup for Newcastle to attract a manager of such stature, how much experience does Benitez really have in relegation dogfights? He is used to dealing with superstars at the top of their game, not struggling players low on confidence. How will he adapt from working with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale to (no offence) Jamal Lascelles and Yoann Gouffran? This is further demonstrated by the fact that Benitez has a release clause in his contract in the event of relegation from the Premier League, hardly inspiring confidence of a) survival and b) a long-term appointment.
What Benitez will bring is detailed tactical acumen. He is obsessed by preparation and demands defensive commitment and positional discipline from all his players. The new boss should also shore up a defence that had become increasingly porous under McClaren. The Toon have really suffered due to goalkeeper Tim Krul’s injury but there is always of sense of when, not if a defensive error will occur.
Let’s not forget that Benitez was in charge of possibly the worst team to ever win the Champions League. The 2005 Liverpool side that defeated the stars of AC Milan in Istanbul had three world-class players in Xabi Alonso, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. The rest were either journeymen (Vladimir Smicer) or solid but unspectacular (Steve Finnan, Dietmar Hamann) with the odd catastrophe thrown in for good measure (Djimi Traore). Yet Benitez managed to mould that team into one that punched well above its weight, beating Chelsea (who had knocked out Barcelona) and a vintage Juventus side. It is this spirit that Rafa will need to harness if Newcastle are to survive because, at the moment, the players seem lacklustre, devoid of direction and bereft of commitment.
As much as the Toon have been dreadfully mismanaged, one cannot accuse Mike Ashley and the Newcastle board of just standing by idly. They have invested heavily in the playing squad in the past 12 months, bringing in Jonjo Shelvey, Andros Townsend, Alex Mitrovic and Georginio Wijnaldum. Yet throwing money at the problem is not the solution. Spending money is no guarantee of success (just ask Liverpool). Newcastle need balance and a coherent playing style where each player understands his individual role. In Benitez, they certainly have a man who will do this, preparing meticulously for each fixture.
The million dollar question though is can Benitez save Newcastle from relegation? As a Liverpool fan I have a soft spot for Rafa, but I feel he does have some limitations and drawbacks. Like his great nemesis Jose Mourinho, players often regress under his management. Because of his obsession with teamwork and tactical discipline (a very important trait let’s not forget), creative players’ natural instincts are often curbed. At Liverpool, numerous promising attacking players came in (Ryan Babel, Mark Gonzalez, Alberto Aquilani for example) and left with little or no improvement.
Additionally, looking at the teams around them, Sunderland (who play Newcastle in the Tyne/Wear derby at the weekend) are definitely on the up. Under Sam Allardyce the Mackems are playing with a spirit and confidence that is conspicuous by its absence at St James’ Park. One of Sunderland, Newcastle and Norwich will stay up, but with a proven goalscorer in the shape of Jermain Defoe in their ranks, it would be a brave man to bet against the Black Cats, especially as they have a superior goal difference. What is for sure is that Newcastle have definitely given themselves a fighting chance in appointing Benitez because under McClaren they were dead certainties for relegation. However, it could be too little too late for the Magpies.