F365’s early losers: Newcastle United and Rafael Benitez

Date published: Monday 25th September 2017 8:55

That’s the problem with modern art: a masterpiece in the eyes of some is little more than a bag of rubbish atop a collapsed stack of chairs to others.

Newcastle’s truth, as ever, likely lies closer to the middle ground. The impressive nature of their consecutive victories over West Ham, Swansea and Stoke should not be overlooked – their first three-game winning Premier League run since November 2014 – but their deficiencies were exposed on Sunday.

Brighton were not brilliant, but they did not have to be. Anthony Knockaert displayed glimpses of the sort of form that saw him crowned Championship Player of the Year last season; Bruno provided the sort of marauding runs from right-back that would leave any ordinary 36-year-old gasping for air. This was no classic victory, but it is a priceless three points nevertheless.

That Rafael Benitez even had to field questions about Champions League football on Friday spoke volumes. The Spaniard could only issue a dismissive response, insisting that he is “not really concerned about the table” in its current embryonic state.

Instead, the manager turned his attentions towards a meeting with Brighton, the team they had pipped to the second-tier title four months ago. “My main responsibility is to be sure that they play with the same intensity and we approach every game as if it was the most important.”

In that respect, Benitez failed in his remit. This was more insipid than intense, more impotent than important. The Magpies had their feathers clipped by the Seagulls.

In that perfectly timed article earlier this week, it was said that Benitez’s ‘perennial mission is to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts’. What was produced at the Amex Stadium was disjointed, the machine stuttering against an opponent it would have earmarked as beatable when the fixtures were released in June.

Just ask former manager Chris Hughton. “In this division there are a group of teams that you know it’s very difficult to get a result against,” said the Brighton boss before the game. “Then there is also a very big group of teams you feel you can get results from, and Newcastle come into that category. I don’t think it’s detrimental to say that, because plenty will say that about us.”

Newcastle would almost certainly have said it about Brighton. They won both their meetings in the Championship last season, and were the side in form. But the underdog often struggles adjusting to playing the role of favourites.

Perhaps it was complacency, the idea that they were facing a fellow newly promoted side and not a well-established top-flight outfit like West Ham or Stoke. The guard dropped, and Brighton took advantage. Perhaps the Seagulls were simply the better, more motivated side on the day? Or maybe the issues lie deeper in a team that persists with Joselu as their starting striker and Ayoze Perez in the No 10 role. When the rest of the team struggles, a forward line with 18 goals and four assists in 113 Premier League games will not carry you over the line; they will feel like dead weight.

Benitez will know Newcastle can do considerably better; they already have this season. Nine points from six games and a place in the top half of the table is a respectable start, and only three clubs have won more games. But this was a reminder that they are still a work in progress, not a work of art.

 

Matt Stead

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