Things were looking a bit confused in Newcastle in May 2016. As the club was relegated from the Premier League, Newcastle supporters appeared to be positive for the first time in years. Rather than the tears that usually greet relegation, the general view was that this was a temporary hiccup in a bright future for the Magpies. Newcastle fans’ unlikely optimism was down to another oddity: the arrival of a man who had until just two months before been managing the biggest club on the planet.
With Newcastle having near-ceased being a football club and become more and more a vehicle for Mike Ashley’s sadism, Rafa Benitez turning up on Tyneside was a significant coup, but not one that was without reason. While managing his boyhood club must have been a dream, Benitez never suited the job in Madrid – his impersonal approach to man management, his distaste for the meddling of those above him and his tactical preference for machine-like teams influenced by the ideals of Arrigo Sacchi meant his days at football’s answer to Disneyland looked numbered from the start. Newcastle on the other hand have a strong working class fanbase desperate for something to latch onto in a city closer to his family home on Merseyside and, while he has previously been a thorn in the side, Ashley finally appears to want to sell up which requires a successful team if he is going to get a good price. On top of this, his popularity and the fact he could easily get a role at a bigger club give him the leverage to gain more control over and shape the team.
Arriving in March, it was too late to save Newcastle from the drop, however Benitez went about building a squad that would get them straight back into the Premier League. Questions were asked of his lack of expience of the Championship so he brought in players who knew what it took – in came Mohamed Diame and Isaac Hayden fresh from promotion with Hull City, Matt Ritchie who was promoted with Bournemouth in 2015 and Daryl Murphy and Grant Hanley arrived from other Championship sides. Dwight Gayle had also played Championship football with Peterborough and had shown glimpses of talent in the Premier League, while Ciaran Clark and DeAndre Yedlin had also played Premier League football. Only Matz Selz, Jesus Gamez and Achraf Lazaar posed much of a risk in translating styles and none of them played much. Newcastle even managed to turn a £30m profit by offloading the likes of Moussa Sissoko, Georginio Wijnaldum and Andros Townsend amongst others for significant fees.
Benitez also adapted his strategy to an approach more in line with traditional English styles. He kept his signature 4-2-3-1 but Newcastle attacked far more frequently down the wings than any of his previous teams had, with the average attacking pass over 5 metres closer to the touchline than the second-highest average. Newcastle also sat deeper than most of his previous teams – one of the first things he did at both Liverpool and Internazionale was to get them defending 10-15 yards higher up the pitch but Newcastle maintained a deep defensive line throughout the season.
The most clearcut adaptation was the use of mixed marking at set pieces. Benitez’s name has become synonymous with zonal marking in England however Newcastle only mark zonally with a handful of players at the near post, as the rest of the defenders mark man-to-man. Few Newcastle players are strikingly big or physical so it’s difficult to see why Benitez has opted for this change other than it just being easier for the players. Although the dangerous front post area is protected, Newcastle’s system can be beaten with movement and blocking. For example, when Clark gave away a penalty against Brighton, Jamaal Lascelles gets blocked off and loses his man, Paul Dummett is so pre-occupied with keeping tight to his he can’t focus on the play, while Karl Darlow is unable to come out and claim the ball due to the bodies in front of him. Clark actually does the most sensible thing and simply holds the attacker to keep tight, allowing him to keep his eyes on the ball coming into the box, but is unlucky that the referee calls for a foul when most get away with far worse. Despite this they still only conceded ten goals from dead balls – the third most successful in the league.
A Rafa Benitez team being well organised defensively won’t come as a shock though – regardless of the change in style, the Spaniard always makes solidity a priority to give his team the best chance of maintaining control. While most coaches speak of control in terms of possession of the ball, Benitez typically speaks of control in terms of managing the flow of the game, which can be done through possession but also by strangling the life out of the game so the opponent can’t use the ball. This makes it far easier to implement game management techniques so that the team stays fresh for the end of the season – if you know you can protect a lead when you gain it, you won’t necessarily need to play at 100% for the whole 90 minutes.
Newcastle defend in two deep, narrow banks of four, crowding space in the middle of the pitch to force play out onto the wings. There they can trap the opposition against the touchline, blocking passes back inside, and put pressure on the player in possession. The pressing is typically started by the winger when the ball reaches the opposition full-back, with the Newcastle full-back pushing out to the opposition winger to ensure he can’t turn should he receive the ball down the line and the centre-midfielder comes across to provide protection for both of the wide players, stopping the opposition from turning inside to keep them trapped on the flank. Meanwhile the attacking midfielder sticks close to any opposition player trying to pick up the ball deep in midfield and the striker pushes up against the nearest centre-back, making it difficult for the full-back to play the ball forward, inside and backward and forcing them into hitting it long which is simpler for the defence to deal with.
There’s little variation from this though – whereas previous Benitez sides have mixed sitting deep to conserve energy and trade long balls with pushing high to stop opposition defenders from playing out, Newcastle rarely defend in the opposition half. Dwight Gayle will chase after anything hit forward and some of the other attackers might offer him support if they need a goal or are already close by, however it’s individuals making appropriate decisions for that particular situation rather than a concerted team effort to press as you would see from a Jurgen Klopp or Mauricio Pochettino side.
This could be another adaptation to Championship football, not allowing space behind them for opposition players to run into in a more direct league and less hard running for a 46 game season, or alternatively preparation for the Premier League, where they will probably have to defend more. On the other hand, it could be that he wishes to introduce these concepts slower from a solid base or that he simply doesn’t have confidence in many of the players to play a more complicated game. We can guess based on his previous teams but without knowing the why it makes it hard to predict what we will see from Newcastle in the future – will we see a slow evolution into another crushing machine, a squad overhaul to achieve it or is Benitez heading in a different stylistic direction for his time on Tyneside?
These questions carry over into how Newcastle attack. While they try to play patiently out from the back, few of the players are particularly suited to it. Dummett and Lascelles are good defenders however neither look comfortable on the ball, Isaac Hayden is always available for a pass and is brave in what he attempts but sometimes lacks the technical quality to pull it off, playing balls behind advancing players or under-hitting them, whereas Jack Colback has better control yet mostly plays safe square passes and avoids the ball. Clark is confident enough to stride forward with the ball and can pick out a pass, but it’s Jonjo Shelvey who Newcastle rely on to advance into attack.
With the quality of his passing, he can send the ball to pretty much anyone’s feet and regularly tests the offside line, feeding Gayle’s runs off the shoulder of the last defender with balls over the top. Newcastle’s early build up play is mostly geared toward getting Shelvey on the ball, with Shelvey dropping to the left of the centre-backs to pick up the ball from deep or staying central ahead of them as Hayden drops off to the right to make space for him deep in midfield.
Despite his obvious talent, this isn’t without its issues. One minor quibble is that rather than wait in space, he will often move towards the ball and restrict it – his dribbling ability is good enough to open up space again but in the Premier League he may be squeezed out more. Secondly, a wider problem is that Newcastle’s dependence on him to move the ball forward makes him an easy target – him being marked out of a game or missing a match through injury or suspension would cripple Newcastle’s build-up. Lastly, Shelvey can’t really be depended upon to be ever-present: he’s easily frustrated and pretty much guaranteed to kick out at someone at least once a match. While an understandable reaction to the rough treatment he endures, defenders knowing they can get a rise out of of him should lead to more than the one rescinded red card he received last season.
Newcastle’s problems in playing out aren’t just the limitations of the defenders though. The wingers hugging the touchline makes them easy to isolate and difficult for Newcastle’s deeper players to reach with passes and, although he has the ability to come short and lay the ball off quickly, Gayle mostly looks to offer the longer option by darting behind the offside line. Ayoze Perez is left as the main link in attack and isn’t comfortable enough with his back to goal to make it work. Despite having good technique and being quick at moving the ball, he generally won’t turn to face goal when receiving the ball, meaning it will quickly go backwards when played into him from deep. Mohamed Diame will happily turn and drive at the centre of defence when played in that role, but is slower at covering ground defensively and isn’t as neat a passer in the final third.
As a result, Newcastle play usually goes down the wings. On the left, with Dummett not providing capable attacking support despite being a willing runner, Yoann Gouffran will just look to hit crosses into the box. Therefore most Newcastle attacks go down the right. DeAndre Yedlin provides Shelvey’s best passing option – more technically capable than Dummett, easily accessible compared to the wingers and facing play unlike Perez, the American is the simplest way of progressing the ball into the opposition half. He will either send Matt Ritchie down the line or play into the winger’s feet and overlap, with Perez moving across to help link play and Hayden moving up to provide an easy out-ball should a move break down.
The objective for these four players is to either move the ball back into the middle for someone to have a shot from the edge of the area – Gouffran tucking in off the flank once the ball moves into the final third and Shelvey often making runs from deep to give extra options – or for one of them to get in behind the defence and fire a ball across the face of goal from the byline. Even free-kicks follow this pattern, with many slid down the outside of the wall to someone running into the gap behind to cross. Gayle will sometimes join in with the link-up play, laying off one touch passes for Ritchie and Perez, however he mainly positions himself in the area between the opposition right-back and centre-back, attacking the back-post to tap in when the ball is played across from the right. Although a more simplified role than many previous Benitez strikers, the position still requires mobility, making Aleksandar Mitrovic and Daryl Murphy unsuitable.
Even though this Newcastle side bears many of the hallmarks of a Rafa Benitez side, it differs significantly from previous ones. The problem with evaluating how the Championship victors will fare in the Premier League is that we can’t necessarily know how much of their strategy will continue once promoted. They are a hard-working, organised side but have some clear flaws that haven’t been addressed over the summer, understandably frustrating Benitez: “when I decided to stay I was expecting another thing. Now we are where we are.” Is this the same Newcastle side we will see this coming season or will Benitez shift towards his previous ideals? It’s hard to work out how much of the team is Benitez moulding them and how much is simply him making do.