During a congested period of festive fixtures, you’d be forgiven for missing the arrival of the halfway point of the Premier League season, which feels like an apt moment to assess Newcastle’s relegation threat.
Following a 4-0 drubbing at his former home Anfield, Rafa Benitez’s often supressed frustration got a rare outing during his post-match press obligations after seeing his mediocre side’s second half capitulation at the hands of the new Champions-elect.
After proclaiming last year’s tenth place finish a miracle (it’s hard to disagree with a transfer net spend of only £22.4m following promotion), he brazenly spelled out his club’s current plight:
“…if we can be better than three teams, it will be another miracle.”
His comments read more like a PR warning shot toward the unpredictable owner ahead of the January transfer window rather than an early resignation of Newcastle’s fate. But even if his team are in better shape for survival than many teams in the bottom half and in better shape than Rafa suggests, it doesn’t invalidate his blunt sentiment.
Ashley’s Newcastle tenure has been an emotionally-draining collage of ‘just enough’ and ‘not enough’, but despite the Boxing Day result and cynical reactions to a possible takeover, Newcastle have lost only three games in their previous 10, winning four.
The five teams below them (Southampton, Cardiff, Burnley, Fulham and Huddersfield) all have inferior goal differences, with the latter four unlikely to better the Magpies on that front anytime soon.
And despite conceding four against Liverpool – the biggest margin of defeat for Rafa since arriving on Tyneside – Newcastle still boast a mid-table defence, the ninth best in the league. The legitimate miracle here is that Newcastle only have the fourth lowest average wage expenditure per player in the division, which epitomises the ‘just enough’ endeavours Rafa is directly referencing, especially given the profit generated in summer.
After 19 games in 2017/18 Newcastle had amassed 18 points, which the Geordies would have now if not for Doherty’s last-minute winner for Wolves. Instead they sit on 17 points before the trip to Watford and lie five points clear of the relegation zone.
Injuries since the start of the season to spine players SalomónRondón, Jonjo Shelvey and Florian Lejeune have hampered Newcastle’s progress and have also exposed the lack of squad depth and quality, particularly in midfield and attack, which Benitez is keen to push in the column inches.
But once Ki Sung-yueng and Yoshinori Muto return from their AFC Asian Cup duties, and Shelvey and Lejeune return to the first team fold indefinitely, then Newcastle’s fortunes should see them edge further away from the relegation. But not so high that it will ever be comfortable.
Luckily, Benitez’s talents lie in team unity, defensivetogetherness and optimising the output of even the most limited players, and it is these traits which will ensure there absolutely are at least three teams worse off than Newcastle come May.
All Rafa is demanding (in the short term, at least) is a more comfortable second half to the season, and a wider safety net.
Of course, the bounce the team and the fans might enjoy should a takeover materialise in the coming months would be significantly uplifting for all those on Tyneside, curtailing the apathy and in-fighting which have blighted the current campaign so far.
Rafa is rightly rattled though, and he’s trying to ensure the money he was denied in summer, when he wasn’t even afforded the luxury of a ‘sell to buy’ strategy, is available for recruits. But so long as doubts about Ashley selling the club linger, doubts about January recruitment and Rafa’s contract will hang around the city like a bad smell, and will affect performance.
We are about to enter the Benitez-Ashley endgame, and it’s good to see the Spaniard in siege mode and defiantly showing his teeth. He’s ready to fight and he still cares deeply for the future of our football club, whether he leaves in May or not. Which is a hell of a lot more than can be said for Mike Ashley.
By Adam Widdrington – @AddingRandomWit