We are already eight months into the Rafa Benitez’s era at Newcastle United and the club look to be eventually heading in the right direction, but just how is the boss getting the best out of the club…
It is no secret that over the years Benitez has not been afraid to “mix things up” at the clubs he has managed. He has never shied away from changing something when he feels it has been necessary to do so if he believes he will get a positive reaction from his team. Benitez is a man who certainly leads from the front and this has been evident in the Championship this season. Take his squad rotation policy for example; no Newcastle side this term has gone consecutive games unchanged despite now eight league wins in a row. It could be argued that this has to happen given the amount of games played in the Championship but it still definitely reinforces Benitez’s desire to keep his players fresh and to avoid injury. By doing this he believes his squad will be mentally and physically ready when called for and he has certainly been proved right this season.
This is nothing new from Benitez, though. And the current crop of Newcastle players will know that if their performances and attitude levels drop, their days could even be numbered. For example – when he left Liverpool in 2010, only two players from the Champions League success in 2005 were still there – Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher. He has also been notorious for being a hard manager to satisfy and this season it has had a positive impact on the Newcastle team. The bar has been set by Benitez and if a player underperforms, pressure on their place in the team increases, with someone else just as good being able to replace them.
The preferred Newcastle formation this season under Benitez has been the 4-2-3-1, something that the Spaniard has been accustom to throughout his career. Earlier in the season the choice to play one striker, mostly being Dwight Gayle, was met with mixed opinion from Newcastle fans but Benitez persisted and it has certainly paid off with Newcastle top of the league now by three points. This system was one that came popular with Benitez in his times at Valencia and Liverpool over a decade ago now. Something that previous managers such as McClaren and Pardew have been criticised for was not playing players in their correct positions, but now that is not the case with Benitez buying players in the summer to suit his system. There is finally a balance to this Newcastle side, with the 4-2-3-1 formation suiting the strengths of the squad. The pace on the flanks with Ritchie and Atsu; Shelvey, Colback and Hayden offering defensive versatility and Diame and Perez offering support to Gayle or Mitrovic on their own up front.
The 4-2-3-1 is a system Benitez has used for years, looking to exploit the weakness in his opponents whilst keeping things tight at the back. And with the Toon at the top of the league, we shouldn’t expect this to alter anytime soon.
Emphasis on youth development:
Something that has perhaps been neglected under most recent managers prior to Benitez at Newcastle United is the Academy and its development. The club’s youth ranks have certainly brought out stars from its production line to play in the Premier League and even England in the past – Andy Carroll being the most recent Geordie to do so. But on a more negative aspect, the club’s U23 and Academy side have experienced mediocre times under the Pardew and McClaren eras. Benitez has made it clear he wants to oversee developments to the club’s Academy base – both on and off the field and already there have been some steady improvements on it. The U23 side are currently sixth in their second tier league under Peter Beardsley. Better players emerging from the club’s academy can only be healthy for Newcastle, as competition for places in the first-team squad would grow as well as the youngsters being better prepared for potential Premier League football.
The same thing happened at Liverpool for Benitez. He was given decision-making powers to oversee youth development during his time at Anfield, and appointed Spanish coach Jose Segura as the new technical director in 2009. This was one of many changes Benitez implemented to Liverpool’s academy and this priority looks to be continuing at Newcastle.
It would be very hard to find a manager willing to work in the Championship who has the experience and achievements in football that Rafa Benitez has. A coaching career that has spanned 30 years (when he began working with Real Madrid’s youth teams in 1986), Benitez has achieved an almighty lot with some of the world’s best. Any chances Benitez had of making it as a top-level player were cut short by a bad knee injury suffered in a game for Spain U19s in 1979, which led him into coaching at quite an early age. His first proper managerial role came at Valencia in 2001, and in 2002 he led them to the La Liga title, aged 42.
However, it is argued that his best times came at Liverpool, where he famously won the Champions League in 2005 from being 3-0 down at half-time against AC Milan, becoming one of the most famous comebacks in football history. It was here where Benitez cemented himself into the hearts of the Liverpool fans, and he is still thought of highly there today. After Liverpool, Benitez has had spells at Inter Milan, Chelsea, Napoli and Real Madrid. There is certainly enough experience there to take Newcastle United forward, and it has not taken long for Benitez to earn the love and respect of the supporters on Tyneside. The Championship is something that Benitez has not experienced before, but the standards have already been set, and the future looks promising for Newcastle United.
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