Is Rafa Benitez having an identity crisis at Newcastle United?

The mood around Newcastle United at the beginning of the season was one of hope and optimism. One man was responsible for that, Rafael Benitez. It was a surprise when the Spaniard decided to take the job at the end of the 2015/16 season and an even bigger one when he opted to remain as manager in the Championship. The former Liverpool and Real Madrid manager oversaw a promotion-winning campaign and has ambitions of building the Magpies into a top team once again.

Although the conditions of the job under Mike Ashley aren’t conducive to that, there remains hope that a takeover will provide a vehicle for change. The long-term future of Benitez seems tied to a takeover going through over the next few weeks as he needs funds to spend in January to ensure Newcastle remain a Premier League outfit. The ongoing takeover has become a distraction to what is happening on the pitch and has become an excuse for the Spaniard to use to hide his own shortcomings.

There is no doubting that Benitez is the best manager that Newcastle can attract, in terms of experience and status. That said, he shouldn’t be above criticism and at the time of writing, he is part of the problem. It is easy to blame Mike Ashley for the team losing games in the Premier League and his minimalist approach is a major reason. However, this team did go on a run of three successive Premier League wins earlier this season and they should have the talent to do better than they have done in recent weeks.

 Is Benitez having an identity crisis?

Throughout his managerial career, Benitez has become intrinsically linked with the 4-2-3-1. It is more than a favoured formation, rather his only formation. Although he was wiling to change his approach when the situation required, he was married to the 4-2-3-1 and that has been the tactical set-up that he has favoured since taking over at Newcastle.

In his Independent column ahead of Euro 2012, Rafa Benitez discussed the formation and gave his thoughts on why England should set-up in a 4-2-3-1.

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“The 4-2-3-1 set-up has the advantage of giving you plenty of numbers in midfield to contain the French who are a fast, technically gifted side. England certainly need to be strong in the middle against Laurent Blanc’s team. But I also believe that 4-2-3-1 will play to the strength England have in the wide areas.”

He may not have been talking about his Newcastle team, but his thoughts on the formation at applicable. The Magpies were good at the beginning of the season as they were difficult to beat. They packed the central areas and kept the opposition out first and foremost. Although they weren’t a great attacking team, they offered a threat down the flanks, with the pace of Christian Atsu and DeAndre Yedlin providing that. It wasn’t great to watch, but they had control and stayed in matches. Benitez is a control freak and that is why his recent decisions have been puzzling.

Against Bournemouth, he changed to a 4-4-2 formation and partnered Joselu with Dwight Gayle. The latter had struggled for game-time since promotion, despite being the club’s top scorer during their promotion campaign. Benitez is loyal to his players and it may have been a sentimental move, but it hasn’t worked. Since that game, they have picked up only one point and the manager has yet to revert to the winning formula that he had earlier in the season.

The decision to drop Ayoze Perez for Dwight Gayle may not seem like one that will make a huge difference to a team, but it has at Newcastle. The former runs himself into the ground for the team and presses from the front. The Spaniard drops into midfield when required and the Magpies look a more organised team when he is on the pitch. Gayle is prepared to press from the front, but his defensive contribution ends when the ball is in the Newcastle half.

Saturday should have been a day for celebration as Newcastle celebrated their 125th anniversary, but they were beaten by Leicester City. They fell to 16th in the table and the relegation fear increased. It wasn’t a bad performance with the ball, but they were far to open and they didn’t have control of the game. For a Benitez team, that is uncharacteristic and therein lies the problem. He has moved away from the principles that have taken him to the top of the game and he needs to reconnect with those, otherwise his team will continue to plummet.

This article isn’t designed to put pressure on Benitez. He is the right man for the Newcastle job and the club’s best chance of developing into a top Premier League team. However, he needs to refocus his mind on the job at hand and forget about the takeover. It is out of his control and he needs to concentrate on getting the team back to how it was in September. They weren’t great to watch, but they were functional and capable of picking up points. A return to the 4-2-3-1 is the answer.

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