How Benitez breathed new life into ailing Newcastle
Exhausting training sessions and clever man-management are at heart of Rafa's Magpie Revolution
When former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher claimed Rafael Benitez turned his players into robots at Anfield, it was meant as a compliment. Few managers spend more time coaching than Benitez, and his attention to detail is famous.
Benitez has a rare talent for analysing the game, identifying where his team are weak, and also where opponents are vulnerable.
Once he has formulated a plan, he drills the team relentlessly to implement it and once the match begins, he is a constant presence on the touchline.
Some improvements have been generic, like defending as a unit, staying compact, but specific plans are also formulated for every game. The players are guided through them, step by step.
Benitez stops and starts the sessions, explaining each player's role over and over again and emphasising the needs of the collective over the individual.
Newcastle's players have regularly been put through two training sessions in a day, not because Benitez felt they needed to be fitter, but because he knew the biggest enemy facing him was a lack of time to implement any desired tactical changes.
Players have even been made to train on the day of a game. That is almost unheard of, but it is done to reinforce tactical messages and to ensure the players have absorbed their lessons.
Benitez often leaves his family home on Merseyside at 4am if he does not stay overnight in a hotel on Tyneside and is still always the first person at the training ground.
"Time was always going to be a problem, that is why we are spending so much of it on the training pitch," said Benitez. "I think every player understands now what we want. You can't just win through fight, you have to be able to use the ball properly."
Benitez had respect in the dressing-room when he arrived - his reputation and CV demanded it - but he has also earned the admiration and affection of Newcastle's players through careful man-management.
For all his dedication to training, he also senses when players need a rest and reward - he gave the squad a day off to spend with families after the 1-0 win over Crystal Palace last weekend, for instance - and the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.
Not since Bobby Robson was at St James' Park have so many players been dropped and still had something to smile about.
Jonjo Shelvey cannot get in the starting line-up; neither can Aleksandar Mitrovic, who has been turned into a crowd-rousing super sub. Ayoze Perez, a former golden boy, has been dropped, as has Georginio Wijnaldum, who was Newcastle's best player at the start of the season.
Shelvey, a notoriously difficult character if he does not feel appreciated, has spoken repeatedly about the "team being the most important thing".
Wijnaldum said last weekend he was as happy as he has ever been since his summer move from PSV Eindhoven, even though he is no longer guaranteed to start. That is some trick for a manager to pull off.
Benitez, though, is not a soft touch, as was proved on Thursday when Gabriel Obertan and Sylvain Marveaux were released early from their contracts.
Unlike Alan Pardew, John Carver and Steve McClaren, Benitez's appointment genuinely excited supporters. From the moment the Spaniard arrived, there has been a sense of anticipation rather than dread.
It is arguably the most ambitious thing Newcastle have done in the nine years Mike Ashley has been owner and the club's supporters and media have responded accordingly.
Even before results improved, Newcastle had changed for the better. After so many years of resenting the owner and those who run the club in his name, Benitez healed rifts and soothed festering wounds.
Newcastle are never stronger than when they have their partisan support behind them and Benitez has reunited a divided club. It is enjoyable to support Newcastle again, despite the threat of relegation.
The new-found enthusiasm among fans has been instrumental in helping to galvanise the players.
France international Moussa Sissoko is arguably Newcastle's best player, but has also been one of their biggest problems: talented, but flaky, with questionable commitment and motivation.
No Newcastle manager, since he was signed from Toulouse in January 2012, has been brave enough to drop Sissoko, but none has consistently got the best out of him either. He has been allowed to coast through seasons, let alone games, saving his best displays for his national side.
Benitez might have dropped Sissoko. It would have sent a powerful message; that anyone with dubious commitment would not be tolerated. Instead, having spotted Sissoko's influence, Benitez decided to make him captain. It was a brilliant piece of psychology: Newcastle have been unbeaten since.
If they can stay that way for the final two weeks, they may be able to plan for next season with rare positivity. (© Daily Telegraph)
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