Even in defeat at Wembley on Saturday, Newcastle’s performance against Tottenham was a fine description of their manager’s abilities. Spurs would eventually find a way through, but only really because of Martin Dubravka’s uncharacteristic error and, despite their passivity, it wasn’t a loss that they deserved.
Throughout the season and away from more prominent discussions about the potential sale of the club and Mike Ashley’s transfer reticence, Rafael Benitez has suffered criticism. Not from fans of the club, but certainly from outsiders, who view Benitez’s disaffection with Ashley as a fig leaf for his side’s performances and league position.
It’s really part of a broader point: mainstream analysis has this strange reluctance to criticise Ashley. When certain pundits are questioned over his running of the club, there’s a sense that they temper what they think, offering party lines instead of more honest assessments. In some instance, with particular people, there’s a way to explain that. With others, though, it’s very strange indeed. Football clubs are always a top-to-bottom enterprise and it’s very rare for a team not to be a reflection of its organisational health. The implication being, of course, that everything which occurs above Benitez’s paygrade will always – always – affect his job performance.
Equally, whatever he is able to achieve at Newcastle must always be divided by whatever Ashley’s effect is calculated to be – which is what caught the eye in Saturday’s narrow loss at Wembley.
Benitez declared himself satsified after the game. He confessed that his side could have been better with the ball and that, between now and the end of the season, they must become more efficient in possession. But he also recognised how hard his players had worked defensively and how anaemic they made Tottenham look for long periods. They may have faced a Spurs side shorn of its two most important attacking players, but Mauricio Pochettino was still able to call on Son Heung-Min, Lucas Moura, Erik Lamela and Fernando Llorente, all players who – with the exception of Llorente – would walk into Newcastle’s starting eleven.
And yet Tottenham created nothing. Almost all of their attacking football was played in front of the visiting defence and the way Newcastle directed the threat into the channels and dealt comfortably with whatever was came into their penalty-box was extremely impressive. Had Son not scored the only goal in the game, a Newcastle centre-half – most likely Jamaal Lascelles – would almost certainly have been Man Of The Match. And nobody, irrespective of what colours they wore to the stadium, would have argued about that.
It’s important to remember, also, that those caveats about Spurs’ injuries only matter in certain situations. While they may be at a considerable disadvantage to those clubs within their own context – both Manchester clubs, Chelsea, Liverpool etc – but even without Dele Alli and Harry Kane they enjoy a comfortable superiority over every side beyond the top-six.
That’s the context that Newcastle’s showing deserves. Benitez confirmed post-game that he expects Miguel Almiron to receive his visa this week and, when that happens, the Paraguayan will provide some much needed support to Salomon Rondon. For now, though, the right response is to recognise how well Benitez is coaching certain departments within the game and – this week especially – appreciate how stubborn he’s been able to make Newcastle despite such scarce resources.
The criticism he faces from some is instructed by a nebulous loyalty to Ashley, or by some kind of ill-defined business-related dependency on him. Elsewhere though, when that isn’t the case, it’s absolutely baffling and seems to rely on a tremendous ignorance of the circumstances in which he’s operating.