Has Newcastle United's Rafa Benitez proven that he can manage in the Championship?
The appointment of Rafa Benitez for the last ten matches of last season was a coup for Newcastle United and surprised the wider footballing world. It was an even bigger surprise when the former Real Madrid manager decided to stay in the North East after the team were relegated, but he had been charmed by the supporters. The Toon Army took to the Spaniard immediately and believed him to be the first manager to really understand the club since Sir Bobby Robson. In the past Newcastle supporters have been accused of not wanting outsiders at their club, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Those that give their best for the club and remain genuine with the fans are respected, which is certainly the case with Benitez.
Although it was a huge statement when the Spaniard decided to stay and manage in the Championship, there have been some doubts about how he would adapt his style to the English second tier. It is a difficult division to compete in and can take some getting used to. Benitez has experience in the Spanish lower leagues which has helped, but it has been his obsessive research that has allowed him to guide Newcastle to a good position in the table.
During the summer, he researched the last few seasons of the Championship and noted that it takes a good defence to get promoted, rather than a free-scoring strike-force. This is a mistake that many relegated teams make and a great example is Aston Villa this season. They spent just over £23 million on Ross McCormack and Jonathan Kodjia, two of the top scorers of the division last season. However, they are in 19th place after 11 matches and it already looks like they are set for another year in the second tier or worse. Newcastle were shrewder with their spending and added depth across the pitch, which has allowed them to rotate frequently.
Throughout his managerial career, Benitez has been a huge believer in rotation and the benefits that it provides for a squad. The Championship is a league that requires a certain amount of rotation, which plays to Benitez’s strengths. Although it is a common method in the modern game, it takes a special manager to do it effectively and Benitez certainly qualifies as that. There isn’t a Newcastle player that has started in every league match this season, highlighting how Benitez understands the physical limitations that his squad have. That said, there are players that he trusts more than others, with Dwight Gayle, Isaac Hayden and Matt Ritchie playing the majority of minutes. Meanwhile, Aleksandar Mitrovic and Chancel Mbemba have played less often that they will have wanted.
Another one of Benitez’s key concepts is the 4-2-3-1 formation, but this hasn’t adapted as well to the Championship. The problem has been that Newcastle are too predictable, especially at home and he may need to become more flexible if he wants to break sides down. Teams have come to St James’ Park and set up to frustrate the home side, using counter-attacks to great effect. Newcastle have struggled to create good chances and they often overplay the ball. This was the case against Huddersfield, Wolves and Norwich.
However, in the match against Norwich, the Spaniard changed to a formation with two strikers and it took the shackles off his side. Newcastle created a lot more chances and managed to turn the match around in a miraculous fashion. In the future, Benitez may be tempted to move away from his favoured formation and start with two strikers against certain teams. Despite his preference for a 4-2-3-1, he is a pragmatic manager and will make changes if he feels it’s the best way of securing a positive result.
It remains early days in Newcastle’s hunt for promotion, but the early indications are that Rafa Benitez is getting to grips with the Championship. His side are in 3rd position heading into the second international break and are beginning to build momentum. They have the best attack in the division and just need to sort out their home form. Benitez has made Newcastle an efficient side away from home, conceding just two goals on the road since the season began. If he fixes their home form, Newcastle will consolidate themselves at the top of the Championship. Benitez is one of the best managers in the world and he is proving that as he turns one of England’s sleeping giants into a force once again.
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