For a man who once described his seven-year Liverpool spell as “lots of ups and downs”, the 2005 Champions League final must have felt like a rollercoaster even for Djimi Traore. The left-back started on that famous evening against AC Milan, and it was his needless concession of a free-kick in the first minute which led to the Italian side’s opening goal. It was akin to heading into an uphill battle wearing a pair of roller skates with a boulder strapped to your back.
“The first half was a nightmare. At half-time I felt bad about how I had played,” Traore said ten years later, admitting Rafael Benitez had planned to substitute him. An injury to Steve Finnan was his only reprieve, a “second chance” that the Malian was “determined to take”. The Champions League winner’s medal sitting proudly in an otherwise sparse collection tells the rest of the story.
“Everybody brought something to the team that night,” he would add, in a quote that embodies Benitez’s management style more succinctly than any other. The Spaniard’s perennial mission is to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts; guiding Liverpool to European glory with Traore, Harry Kewell and Milan Baros in the starting line-up and Igor Biscan, Antonio Nunez and Josemi on the bench was his crowning glory.
Twelve years on, Benitez is aiming for a domestic encore. His Newcastle side are captained by a 23-year-old, have a central midfield pairing aged 21 and 22, and their starting striker was offloaded by Stoke in the summer after scoring four goals in 27 games. Jamaal Lascelles, Mikel Merino, Isaac Hayden and Joselu had made 40 Premier League appearances between them at the start of this season, and yet they form the unlikeliest of spines to the team currently in fourth.
In goal is Rob Elliot, who has made 44 league appearances for the club in six years. At right-back, Javier Manquillo crossed the Tyne-Wear divide to become Newcastle’s right-back after Sunderland’s relegation. Ciaran Clark, defensive partner to Lascelles and the only outfielder to play every minute so far, suffered the same fate with Aston Villa a year prior.
Newcastle outspent only six clubs this summer. Of the three promoted sides, Brighton and Huddersfield both spent more and signed more players. The Magpies added six to a Championship-level squad; the Seagulls and the Terriers brought in 10 and 13 respectively.
Yet this collection of Newcastle misfits currently forms the filling to a Chelsea and Tottenham sandwich. Only Leicester (41%) and West Brom (41.4%) have lower possession on average (41.6%) and no club completes fewer of their passes per game (68.9%), but Benitez is proving the power of coaching and a meticulous game plan over spending.
Had the Spaniard got his own way, he would have been able to strike more of a balance between the two. “As soon as the window closed we knew this was the group of players we have,” he said last week. “They know that they have to work hard because we can improve them individually or as a team.”
It was a risky public message to send, but three straight victories suggests, as is often the case with Benitez, the tactic was perfectly executed. Former scout Mauro Pederzoli, who worked with him in 2007, once said Benitez “doesn’t want headline-hogging players” but ones with “discipline”. Moussa Sissoko, Georginio Wijnaldum, Andros Townsend, Remy Cabella, Papiss Cisse and Florian Thauvin are all proof of the Spaniard’s exacting standards.
The recipe for top-flight survival has been passed down through generations. A club must have a blend of experience and youth in their squad, players with an understanding of the league are essential, and without a proven goalscorer, relegation is an inevitability. Benitez has defied the conventional wisdom, having named four of the seven youngest starting XIs in the Premier League this season. Only two Newcastle outfielders are over 30, and neither Jesus Gamez nor Mohamed Diame have played more than 90 minutes.
The season is but five games old, and one could argue that Newcastle’s fixture list has been kind. But the youngest, least established side who complete barely two-thirds of their passes, have just over two-fifths of possession and rely on youth instead of experience have scratched, clawed and fought their way up the table.
Benitez has been the key. Like the award-winning artist who is able to create a masterpiece with a pot of broken crayons and a pair of rusty scissors, he has shown his ability to excel in the face of adversity once more. Mike Ashley tried his best to handicap his manager, but it feels like the Spaniard could even make it work with Djimi Traore at left-back.