Saturday 18 January 2020

Attention to detail helps Benitez get Magpies flying

Rafael Benitez has led Newcastle to the top of the Championship after last season’s relegation from the Premier League. Picture: Getty Images
Rafael Benitez has led Newcastle to the top of the Championship after last season’s relegation from the Premier League. Picture: Getty Images

Martin Hardy

James Adcock blew his whistle. Dwight Gayle played the ball back from the centre circle at St James' Park to Jonjo Shelvey. People were still taking their seats. The stadium was once more just about full.

It would take three days to realise what happened next. Shelvey moved the ball to DeAndre Yedlin. Yedlin moved back and played the ball to Jamaal Lascelles, who returned the pass to Yedlin. Three Ipswich players were within eight yards. It was, as Mick McCarthy would admit later, a high press.

Yedlin went up the line to Matt Ritchie. There were three players within four yards of him. There was still no space to play. The clock ticked. Ipswich were working hard. Newcastle were working the ball. People were still taking their seats. Fourteen seconds had gone and the ball was played back to Karl Darlow.

Four passes later the ball was back with Darlow, 28 seconds had passed. Ipswich had still to touch the ball when the ball finally went into their half.

It was quick, fluid movement. Fifty-four seconds after Adcock's first whistle, the ball was played back to Shelvey, who fired a trademark 50-yard ball to his left to Paul Dummet.


The Newcastle full-back crossed, Yoan Gouffran flicked on and Ayoze Perez volleyed the ball into the corner of Bartosz Bialkowski's goal. St James' Park rose to celebrate.

Bialkowski, as he forlornly walked back into the Ipswich net, would become the first player on his side to touch the ball. In contrast, every Newcastle player had done so.

"I'd said to press them and not let them play but that went out the bloody window when they scored straight away," McCarthy would later moan.

As Perez ran to celebrate, and as the crowd who had barely sat down stood up, Rafa Benitez was at the side of the pitch calling over Ciaran Clark. There was no interest in the celebration. Instead there was instruction. The knees in Benitez's suits remain unscathed at the end of each game. Instead, after a comprehensive victory kept Newcastle at the top of the Championship, the Spaniard took off his glasses, shook hands with McCarthy and his staff and walked down the tunnel. Instruction and modesty. This is new.

On April 7, Benitez called Sylvain Marveaux and Gabby Obertan into his office. He had been in charge a day short of four weeks. There had been a marked improvement in the two players on the training field but they were still peripheral. Marveaux had not played a first team game for two years.

Obertan, one of the few players signed on the recommendation of Alan Pardew, had faired slightly better, having started five games that season, although none for six months. Both men were told their contracts were being paid up. They left Newcastle the following month. It was an iron fist.

Benitez stayed in the summer after guarantees were given about control. He might as well have taken a mop and a bottle of Dettol into the Newcastle dressing room. Players who had festered went. Fabricio Coloccini, Papiss Cisse, Moussa Sissoko and Manu Riviere were all moved on.

The new manager picked up the phone and played his part, along with the managing director Lee Charnley, and did deals. Both men wanted two players for each position, a simple target overlooked for the previous three seasons. Newcastle signed 12 players ready for first-team football; one goalkeeper, five defenders, four midfielders and two centre-forwards.

In total a staggering 19 first-team squad members were either moved on or sent out on loan. When the dust had finally settled Newcastle, a relegated club, had spent around £60 million, offset by raising more from funds. It was still, however, a bold move.

Benitez was finally ready to go to work on the training field.

This is where the Spaniard, in his shorts, his Newcastle waterproof jacket and his trusty cap, looks happiest. It is a love affair with tactical knowhow that goes back to when he was 14, and in his quest to beat his brothers and his friends at the board game Stratego went without sleep for a night in order to run through every potential move his opponent would make.

"The basic principle was to toy with what my opponent expected me to do, to move the pieces in such a way that they would mistakenly assume certain characters in certain places," he would say in his book, 'Champions League Dreams'. "All of my work did not go to waste. My brother and my friends would never beat me again."

On Newcastle's training ground at Benton, tucked away in the shadow of the Northumberland FA's headquarters, Benitez repeatedly stops games. There is questioning and there is repetition and there is emphasis on tactical development.

"He makes us think all the time," a player told me. "We're not a 4-4-2 or 4-1-4-1. We work on shape and we change within the game. It's a European style of coaching, the runs he wants you to make are different."

Benitez was asked in an interview on coaching what his philosophy was. "The first thing I would say is that I'm a worker," he said. "I'm very pragmatic in my coaching work. I am always questioning, looking for new solutions.

"The first priority is to improve defensive tactical play because that is less complicated than the attacking side and it is important for success."

The central defender Chancel Mbemba, who has taken time to adjust to Benitez' structure, is no longer a regular. Jamaal Lascelles and Ciaran Clark have fared better. They adhere to the structure asked of them. They have become nearer to first choice. Newcastle have conceded one goal in their last five games (all won).

"Two clean sheets in a row will please the manager," Jack Colback said recently. "The big focus is on being solid as a unit and defending well and that has given us the basis to progress."

Defensive pragmatism has given Newcastle a base, but there is much more to the development than that. Newcastle are top scorers in the Championship. Their goal difference of plus 19 is more than twice as good as anything in the division. They are averaging 16 shots a game. Gayle is the division's top scorer with 11 goals but six players have scored more than three times. Newcastle have become a team.

Benitez believes he can keep around 19 or 20 of a pool of 27 players happy this season. He speaks privately of the need to be able to call on players immediately, for them to step in and play at the right level. Newcastle made seven changes for the cup tie with Preston on Tuesday from the side who beat Ipswich. There was not a murmur of complaint. They won six-nil.

Benitez has already earmarked April as a key month. There are seven league games to be played, 21 points to alter the course of any team's season. April. We are still in October. Vision is something else that is new. "In my parents' house alone I had 1,500 videos with three matches on each," he added. "I used to analyse the details of every game." That attention to detail is making Newcastle compulsive viewing. (© Independent News Service)

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