Why Rafa and Newcastle could be perfect partners
The way in which Newcastle United have dealt with the dismissal of Steve McClaren and the subsequent appointment of Rafael Benitez has been nothing short of farcical. It was common knowledge that the former England boss was on his way out of St James' Park, but the manner in which it was handled made the club appear particularly amateurish.
However, the decision to replace McClaren with the Champions League winner is a no-brainer for the Newcastle board - it's an obvious upgrade in managerial ability. Benitez has his critics on English shores and is perhaps best known for both the 'miracle of Istanbul' and the infamous 'fact' rant during his time at Liverpool, but his record and achievements can't be faulted either at Anfield or later with Chelsea, given the extenuating circumstances.
It's a fantastic coup for the Toon, with the sheer size of fanbase and stadium underlying the huge potential for growth and development. The merit in taking over a club in the bottom three and a squad containing decent players is that the improvement can be significant, although with just 10 matches remaining in the season, it can be difficult to galvanise individuals.
It's when the odds are stacked against Benitez that he normally performs best; as coach of Valencia and Liverpool his teams weren’t deemed among the favourites until they matured to the required standard. He arguably achieves more as the one tasked to compete with the more affluent clubs rather than at the global money making machines of Internazionale and Real Madrid, although the expenditure was little by both clubs in contrast to previous tenures.
It will require a very different skillset to pull the Geordies away from being Championship certainties, a role that is normally reserved for renowned man-managers in comparison to staunch tacticians. Benitez was unsuccessful in trying to stop Extremadura from avoiding the drop in 1999; his only previous relegation battle and it’s an unknown quantity if he can keep a struggling side in the Premier League.
Rafa appears to have learnt from this scenario and has spent time in other countries in an effort to harness the latest trends and differences. “It has been tremendous for me to go to England and learn their concept of football,” Benitez told UEFA’s official website in 2002, when manager of Valencia.
Then, in a cruel twist of fate, he revealed the man that helped him gain the access. “My contact at Manchester United was Steve McClaren, and we have a fantastic relationship. I always ask him how you can coach the never-say-die attitude, focus and commitment of the English players. But Steve tells me that it is a natural phenomenon in the head and heart of every English player.”
Benitez will be hoping that he has a greater success at extracting that so-called desire and responsibility than his predecessor.
His time at Anfield saw him cultivate a special relationship with the supporters that was strengthened by his willingness to fight catastrophic owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett. It ultimately led to his removal from the club, but his public complaints helped fans learn of the goings-on behind the scenes.
The organisation and structure the Spaniard provides at the back is certainly needed...
A similar bond with those arriving through the turnstiles could be recreated at Newcastle, especially if he takes Mike Ashley to task and gains the control he longs for. He will certainly attempt to avoid the poisonous divide between him and Chelsea match-goers that manifested itself so quickly, although the great expectation will quickly return should they survive relegation and many managers have faced a cruel demise on Tyneside when results have been less favourable.
His constant squad rotation and penchant for zonal marking will probably irritate former hero Alan Shearer, even though the practices are now commonly acknowledged amongst his Premier League peers. Benitez’s preferred formation is 4-2-3-1 and it’s unlikely he will deviate too far away from this practice in the immediate future.
The organisation and structure that the Spaniard provides at the back is certainly needed at a side that has conceded 20 goals in the last nine league games. His full-backs will advance into attacking areas but not to the detriment of balance, whilst his wide players need to perform their defensive duties diligently.
Newcastle’s lengthy injury problems mean that Benitez will be without Papiss Cisse for the foreseeable future, therefore he quickly has to establish his trusted lone striker. Fellow countryman Ayoze Perez is strong defensively so may be used in a wide position similar to the former Madrid boss’ deployment of Dirk Kuyt on Merseyside.
His No.10 will need to be equally both industrious and creative in equal measure, as Juan Mata and Steven Gerrard managed under his stewardship.
The returning Cheick Tiote should provide protection for the back four alongside Jonjo Shelvey, a player Benitez signed in 2010 but never actually got to work with. Steven Taylor will naturally be viewed as the Jamie Carragher of the side, as the local lad and fan on the pitch. The now Sky pundit was known for his last-ditch tackles and definitely enhanced his own tactical awareness with Benitez at the helm: Taylor has the attributes to do similar.
Newcastle’s possession rate will likely increase, but it’s their counter-attacking intuitiveness that will define their style. Fast and well-drilled direct movement will relieve the pressure placed upon them by their opponents, although the scheme will dictate that they will be difficult to breakdown without the ball. Napoli’s second goal in the 2-0 victory over Juventus in March 2014 was systematic of this approach, with Goran Pandev providing the diagonal pass for Dries Mertens to finish.
Mata, Gerrard and Fernando Torres all enjoyed their best footballing seasons under Benitez, but his lack of warmness and restrictive advice agitated various other talents.
For some, his instructions from the bench and in training enable them to reach a level they have never previously encountered, whilst for others his meddling and tinkering inhibits their independent capability.
If Newcastle can outfight Norwich City, Sunderland and Aston Villa in the coming weeks – all teams they still have to play - then they might just have stumbled upon the sensible long-term plan the club has previously lacked.