Three things Benitez will have learned from Newcastle's opening day loss to Fulham
Despite being overwhelming favourites for the league and having Rafa Benitez in charge, Newcastle United opened up their campaign with a loss against Fulham. There has been an overreaction to the defeat both from the Toon Army and the wider footballing public. However, it is a stark reminder that this season won’t be as easy as some had thought. It is only one match and titles aren’t won in August, but Rafa Benitez will have learned a lot from his side’s opening game. Here are three things we took from Friday’s defeat at Craven Cottage:
Set pieces are a huge issue
In their final pre-season match, Newcastle conceded twice from set pieces and they continued to look vulnerable from dead-ball situations on Friday. Matt Smith scored the winning goal for Fulham from a routine corner and that will disappoint Benitez. There is no doubt that he has been working on set pieces all week, but it remains an area of weakness.
In this league, the referees are more lenient when it comes to pushing and pulling from dead-ball situations, which may take some time to adapt to for many of the Newcastle players. They have brought in Grant Hanley to add some much needed Championship experience, but many of their other defenders have never played in this division.
Although it is a weakness, it is one that can be worked on and corrected over the coming weeks. Benitez is a meticulous manager and he will realise the value of set pieces in this league.
The central midfield combination didn’t work
Newcastle will dominate possession in the majority of their matches this season and yesterday they lacked creativity from deep. Rafa Benitez has always liked to set up with two screening midfielders, but he may need to rethink this before next weekend.
Although Isaac Hayden impressed, and looks to be a good addition adding bite to the midfield, Jack Colback was a huge disappointment. There was hope that a year in the Championship would relaunch his career, but a few more performances like that and Colback will quickly find himself out of the first eleven.
In the next match, Benitez may opt to bring Jonjo Shelvey into the side to provide a creative spark. In his cameo yesterday, Shelvey was always looking forward and Newcastle looked more dangerous after his arrival. He is one of the many Newcastle players, who need to have a good year this season. If Benitez can motivate Shelvey and get him playing consistently, he will emerge as one of the best players in the division.
There was also a lack of drive from midfield with the attackers lacking support in the final third. This was an issue on Friday, but the club have already signed Mo Diame. He will have been signed for this reason and is likely to come into the first eleven next weekend.
There is already an over-reliance on Mitrovic
Benitez has long been labelled a great tactician and he showed signs of that towards the end of last season. However, Newcastle reverted to long ball football for large periods of their opening match and it brought little success. This shouldn’t be surprising as they were lining up with Ayoze Perez and Dwight Gayle in attack, neither of whom are known for their aerial prowess.
The idea was to get Gayle in behind the Fulham back four, who were operating with a high line, but the two central defenders didn’t possess the technical ability to carry this out effectively. Again, this links in with the previous point, as Shelvey would have been able to play these passes.
Newcastle did not have much of a presence in the final third and struggled to keep hold of the ball. Both Gayle and Perez were dispossessed with relative ease. It was clear that the side would have fared better with Aleksandar Mitrovic, who holds the ball up well and able to bring others into the game.
The Magpies should go into the transfer market to bring in another striker who is capable of carrying out the same role as Mitrovic. Although he would only be a short-term solution, Peter Crouch would be an excellent addition and would be available for a decent fee.
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