How Benitez is fixing Newcastle
Football is a chaotic game that, in spite of efforts from the richest clubs and certain cowed governing bodies to ensure otherwise, remains dazzlingly unpredictable. Except at Newcastle United. It’s all very predictable at Newcastle, which is a disturbing thing to say on a number of levels, but that won’t be the last sentence here that troubles you.
Had you asked almost anyone in the summer, anyone with any experience of watching football in the last ten years or so, what was going to happen at Newcastle, they would have told you this: Rafa Benitez will set about that football club like a very patient father untangling a set of long-forgotten Christmas lights. He won’t untangle them immediately because they haven’t been looked after very well, they were thoughtlessly stuffed in the attic many years ago and there are knots in there that defy physics, but if you leave him alone, keep quiet and maybe get him a cup of tea, he’ll work steadily and methodically and he’ll get the job done.
Last weekend, Newcastle beat Brentford 3-1 at St James Park. That is what they did. They didn’t ‘obliterate’ them, they didn’t ‘wipe the floor with them.’ They just beat them. And they beat them because they did everything neatly and properly, which is a most unNewcastley way of doing things.
They achieved this end largely because of the sustained excellence of Jonjo Shelvey. You see? I told you there would be more troubling stuff in here. Shelvey, whose career thus far has been so mixed that you wondered sometimes if he was only ever good by accident, is a renewed force in this midfield. He demands the ball. Literally. He actually points at his feet and tells people to pass to him. And they do so because of the things that he can do with it.
His early cross from the right flank is perfectly weighted and deftly nodded home by Ciaran Clark for the opening goal. Shortly afterwards, Shelvey takes the ball inside his own half, looks up and lofts it all the way to the edge of Brentford’s penalty area. Striker Dwight Gayle is beaten to the ball, but Brentford fail to get rid of it and Gayle is afforded the time to turn and blast the ball past Daniel Bentley for number two. Early in the second half, Yoann Gouffran feeds Shelvey on the left, because Shelvey v2.0 is conscientious enough to cover far more ground than before, and his cross is tapped in for the third by Gayle.
Benitez being the way he is (an amiable obsessive who in another life might live in a weird old house on a hill and conduct experiments with lightning) you know that he lay awake all night fretting about the way Brentford were able to score from a corner within 60 seconds of that third Newcastle goal, but as stressed earlier, this is a pretty tangled set of Christmas lights.
But it’s not just Shelvey who’s impressing. There’s the competence of the much underrated Karl Darlow, who claimed one evil-looking, swirling corner with the sort of assuredness that outfield players never notice, but that makes all former goalkeepers of any calibre rub their thighs in appreciation. It’s the level-headedness of Jamaal Lascelles. It’s the ball-playing of Ciaran Clark, not always perfect, but endearingly bold and actually quite helpful.
On the left flank, there is convention. Gouffran supported by the workmanlike efforts of Paul Dummett. On the right flank, there is invention, where utility midfielder Vurnon Anita dovetails with the hitherto inconsistent left-winger Christian Atsu. You can probably guess which flank is the most secure and which one creates the most chances. There were two occasions in the first half alone where Anita’s ambition left his side a little open. And yet that ambition would continue to pay compensatory dividends as the game progressed. Newcastle never looked like losing.
But don’t consider promotion a formality. The Championship is a draining division where the slightest hint of complacency is punished by sides eager to reassert the maxim that anyone can beat anyone. Newcastle supporters, hardened by disappointment, will know how quickly things can change at their club and how every previous fleeting period of contentedness under owner Mike Ashley has been followed by something ludicrously self-destructive like an unwarranted sacking, a stadium name-change or Joe Kinnear.
But just for now, in this moment, there they are, quietly getting on with their job. Newcastle United are an organised, well-prepared football club with a careful, clever manager who will sit there quietly undoing those knots until there’s something worth celebrating. For anyone who has watched this club for a while, it’s actually quite disconcerting.
Is a football writer for ESPNFC and the editor of The Set Pieces