Rafael Benitez lined up his defenders, one in front of another, and looked for evidence of their speed of instinctive reaction. ‘Right,’ he shouted, wanting sharp movement. ‘Left.’ ‘Left.’ ‘Right.’ When a defensive unit faces any attacking threat, its personnel need to move immediately, instinctively, in synchrony. Engraining into them an intuitive sense of where to go in such a moment was the Spaniard’s first drill under the leaden skies of Newcastle United’s Darsley Park training ground, 21 days ago, as football took in the news that their club had somehow managed to hire him.
It is fair to say that not everyone leapt sideways at once when Benitez issued those instructions. Defensive shape was lacking: that much was evident from the first hour, after he cancelled the scheduled day off Steve McClaren had awarded the players. Benitez’s closest aides will tell you he issued more instructions – and was more animated – than they ever seen him on a touchline, during the subsequent visit to Leicester three days later, for his first game in charge.
His work has had an impact. Leicester were limited to one shot on target in that game, during which Benitez’s charges also displayed far greater narrowness between the lines than had been witnessed during a season in which they have shipped 55 goals – more than any other Premier League side bar Aston Villa. It reinforced what Jamie Carragher says about the Spaniard: that he is the best manager he has worked with, when it came to setting up a back four. The problem heading into a monumental weekend is that his side need to score now, as well as keep them out, and only Villa are worse in that department, too.
After barely two weeks with these players, Benitez finds himself plunged into the game in which goals and three points are obligatory: Saturday’s visit to Norwich, who are Newcastle and Sunderland’s partners in what looks like a three-team relegation dance of death. Norwich bought themselves a lifeline before the international break, with a scratched winner at West Bromwich Albion, and a win for them would leave Newcastle marooned fully six points from safety. It doesn’t help the Tyneside nervous system that Sunderland’s home game with West Bromwich on Saturday also looks winnable. If the worst case scenario prevails, Newcastle could be four points adrift of the third bottom side by Saturday night.
“You have sunny days, now? For two or three days it was sunny,” Benitez said, opening his press conference with a grin. He could be forgiven for reflecting that the break in the clouds had not lasted for long. He finds himself without goalkeeper, Rob Elliot, who has this week been ruled out for at least six months with a knee injury sustained in a rare appearance for the Republic of Ireland against Slovakia on Wednesday. An emergency loan is not allowable so he turns to reserve option Karl Darlow. Darlow was once recommended by Eric Steele, who also urged Sir Alex Ferguson to sign David de Gea, but he has only one senior Newcastle appearance to his name.
Those for whom Newcastle have consumed most waking thoughts for years, rather than three weeks, will tell you that breaks of bad luck like that will inevitably start to work against a club when it is run by an individual with such a disinclination to invest as Newcastle’s Mike Ashley.
Mark Jensen, editor of Newcastle’s popular The Mag, cites the summer of 2012 – after Yohan Cabaye, Papiss Cisse and Hatem Ben Arfa, had taken the club to a fifth placed finish – as the moment when the club could have built on foundations and established something befitting Newcastle’s current 17th place the Deloitte Football’s Money League. They didn’t – and by the time some spending came, last summer, everyone was doing the same. Chancel Mbemba has been the only success of last summer’s arrivals, with Newcastle pursuing the old, ritualistic belief that a collection of players who flourished in weaker Belgian and Dutch leagues would be stand-out talents in the Premier League. Georginio Wijnaldium has flattered to deceive and has not scored away from St James’ Park. Aleksandar Mitrovic has struggled to lead the line. The defence has been bad: just plain, rank bad.
Though the euphoria surrounding Benitez’s arrival has obscured the underlying ills, Jensen is one of many who feels that the game is up and that the club is likely to plunge to its second relegation in four years. The presence of the Spaniard actually transcends what happens in the next six weeks, he says. “Many fans would take relegation if it means a guarantee that Benitez would stay, bottom the club out and lay some foundations to rebuild it. If he keeps the club up, the fear would be that Ashley refuses him control and quickly gets him out, because he doesn’t want a distinguished manager who runs it his own way.” There is no guarantee of Benitez staying if the drop comes. Both he and Newcastle have a break clause for such an outcome and he will revisit that then.
Benitez smiled again yesterday when he gave out a reminder that he does have experience of this relegation business. He was missing a goalkeeper on that occasion, too. His man was sent off after conceding a fateful penalty in Extremadura’s two-leg relegation play-off against Rayo Vallecano in 1998/99, which they lost. But on that occasion, he knew the squad inside out, had won them promotion the previous season. This time he has been given ten games – a pitifully short run. Sunderland’s signs of recovery under Sam Allardyce show the value of being given longer.
Defeat on Saturday would leave Newcastle with one point from three under him, heading to the difficult proposition of Southampton away, with Manchester City and Liverpool directly up the road. The public anger about Ashley’s running of this great club, which the euphoria surrounding Benitez’s arrival has obscured, would almost certainly be back.
But the Spaniard nurtures a quiet belief that he might yet save this day. He has tried to use the international break as a form of pre-season for the players at his disposal, in a tactical sense. Drilling home some of the ideas about shape and movement which he considers important, then trying to condense several days instruction into individual one-to one conversations with those who have been away with their countries. As was the case at Chelsea, he wants more physical intensity, but it is too late in the season to run the players into the ground.
Benitez has always been one for the “small details”, as he always likes to say, rather than the broader emotions – and he is genuinely encouraged by the way his new charges have seized on his ideas and drills. “You cannot change many things,” he said yesterday, in an observation which was more significant than it might have seemed. “You have to do two or three ideas and then continue with the ideas and be clear so you don’t have any confusion. We work with them – with the ball and without the ball.” Allardyce says he has calculated that four wins will save his Sunderland team. Benitez was keeping the permutations – and he will certainly have been making them – strictly to himself. “I’m not doing any numbers now,” he said.