If Rafael Benitez had hoped Tuesday’s fightback at West Brom would help Newcastle rediscover some belief, then their showing at Chelsea would have left him disappointed.
After a bright start at Stamford Bridge, which included a surprise opener for Dwight Gayle, the Magpies never looked like holding on to their lead, nor recovering their grip on the game when indeed it did slip. The suspicion is that the only thing to have shocked Benitez was the fact that Newcastle led for nine minutes before Eden Hazard woke Chelsea from their Saturday slumber.
Most teams are a reflection of their manager, especially one that has been in charge for well over a year and a half, and this Newcastle side accurately mirrors Benitez’s indecision over a way forward.
Amid a run that now leaves Newcastle with one win in 10 games having lost five of their last six matches, no-one can accuse Benitez of not searching for the answers. Saturday brought three changes from the trip to The Hawthorns, with the players that seemingly sparked that fightback left in reserve. The manager also changed his shape to match Chelsea – he is not the first manager to do that – and kept faith in a goalkeeper he brought in during midweek for reasons that few people, certainly not Rob Elliot, can fully explain. Change for change’s sake?
Benitez seems to have tried everything but still Newcastle are slipping in the direction of a relegation fight that will seem all too familiar on Tyneside.
Running out of ideas, Benitez has attempted to turn the focus towards the board and their lack of willingness to provide the manager with what he believes are the necessary funds to make the required improvements. Few will argue that there is no validity to Benitez’s complaints but it is hard to see what his more recent outbursts are designed to achieve other than covering his own tracks.
Sean Dyche diplomatically dismissed Benitez’s assertion that even the likes of Burnley and Huddersfield are able to out-bid and out-spend Newcastle, but the Clarets boss, who has his team up in sixth above Spurs, recognises his restrictions and works accordingly. Benitez has repeatedly said that his squad are giving everything but the attitude of “we are where we are because we have what we have” is unlikely to inspire his players to overachieve.
The players’ desire is a trait that could be better utilised. Despite their recent poor run, only the 3-0 home defeat to Watford left fans questioning the side’s application. Benitez has a group willing to run and graft for the shirt, which is more than some managers have at their disposal, so it is his role to mould them into a cohesive unit capable of challenging the big-hitters and beating the teams around them. They might not be the most talented but they can be organised. At Chelsea, there was little evidence of cohesion as the players tried both to press the hosts’ defence and drop off to deny Chelsea space in behind their own backline.
Injuries don’t help consistency in selection, with skipper Jamaal Lascelles clearly missed, but it seems clear that Benitez has yet to identify the team or shape that he sees as the best available to him.
Despite the downbeat rumblings coming from the manager, the picture is still a positive one for Newcastle – but the mood has certainly shifted on their slide from an unexpected fourth place into 12th. The manager wanted 20 points by Christmas which leaves them searching for five points from four games against Leicester, Everton, Arsenal and West Ham to stay on track.
Then comes the January window, and though a £150million transfer kitty could be handed to Benitez if and when the rumoured takeover is complete, it almost certainly won’t be done in time for their winter business. Mike Ashley was always a reluctant spender when the club’s interest mirrored his own, but he certainly won’t splash the cash for the benefit of an incoming party. Yes, Ashley will have to free up some funds but he will again ask Benitez to achieve safety on the bare minimum.
Knowing that the fans will always back him – the visiting support sung the manager’s name loudly at kick-off and full-time – Benitez seems too content to use the restrictions upon him as an excuse. Benitez would be better served focusing on getting the best of what he has rather than moan about the owner’s unshakeable thriftiness.
That means finding a formula that most suits his current crop of players, which he appears no closer to achieving.