Newcastle United’s win over Swansea on Sunday was, under the circumstances, a ‘good news’ story. Even with Rafael Benitez recovering from a post-surgery infection and unable to make the trip, the Spaniard’s side were vastly improved from the form they showed prior to the international break. Winning away from home in the Premier League is always a bonus for a newly-promoted team, doing so at the home of a likely lower-table rival is more so.
In the coming days, more critical analysis might deduce that Newcastle were fortunate to run into a Swansea teams so bereft of ideas. Aside from Jamaal Lascelles’s dramatic goal line clearance from Tammy Abraham, the visitors didn’t have to do much to preserve their clean-sheet. They defended well enough and were suitably prepared for the crosses and set-pieces which shelled their penalty-box, but Rob Elliot faced just four shots on-target and only Tom Carroll’s near-post snap-shot demanded a save.
Nevertheless, a win is a win and Newcastle have taken up a healthy place in mid-table.
There was plenty of opportunity to admire Benitez’s team on Sunday. They may have a limited playing staff, but the combination play – particularly when working themselves out of their own half – was impressive and the threat posed on the counter-attack was symptomatic of their balance. Mikel Merino had an excellent game, Matt Ritchie looked a creative threat and, of course, Lascelles was prominent in both halves of the pitch.
It was bittersweet though. All summer, the atmosphere around the club has been dominated by discussion of unsupported ambition and broken promises. Benitez was assured that he would receive the necessary funds to strengthen his squad and yet that hasn’t proved to be the case. At the time of writing, it’s still unclear what his response will ultimately be to that and whether he’ll continue to tolerate Mike Ashley’s thrift and the difficulties it’s likely to cause.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible not to view this latest win through that lens. One imagines, for instance, the gross self-congratulation of the Newcastle decision-makers at full-time at the weekend. As was the suspicion during the peak of Alan Pardew’s early tenure, the assumption – again – is that every win provides validation for a flawed approach.
“Look, we can do it on the cheap.”
It’s a difficult case to make, because by its nature it denigrates the players. However, after the locals had muttered their way out of the Liberty Stadium and the ground had fallen quiet, it was tempting – even as a neutral – to feel a certain bitterness. Newcastle do not do things properly. They do not respect many of the Premier League truisms we accept as fact. Yet here they were: winning.
It’s not possible (or right) to separate a team from its coaching. In this instance, however, Benitez is performing to a level that his employers don’t necessarily deserve. His squad is ordinary and comprised in part of players who have no business existing outside the top-flight’s relegation zone. If they finish above 18th this season – which they look likely to do given the issues in other parts of the country – they will owe that result almost entirely to the multiplying effects of their manager. Newcastle do not have star power and they do not possess a calibre of individual capable of winning games on his own; that means that at all times this must be a collective effort and that form will be continually dependent on strategy and structure. An energy-sapping grind with no twenty-goal forward and no glinting playmaker capable of lightening the burden.
Under ordinary circumstances, the watching world would be obliged to sit back and applaud. But to do that here is to miss the obvious subtext: what might the club achieve if they recognised just how fortunate they are to have Benitez guiding them. Not the supporters, because their affection for their manager is palpable, but rather those who effectively dared him to resign over the summer and have endeavoured to make this survival effort as difficult as it could possibly be. Do those people understand what an opportunity this is?
Swansea are a Premier League minnow, but beating them was both a struggle and an achievement; how can that be for a team with Newcastle’s resources and what does it imply about the months ahead.
Football shouldn’t work like this. Wins should be good, defeats bad, and life simple. On Sunday, however, it was impossible not to gaze on the cohesion and imagine how stressless survival would have been had Benitez been properly supported. Put a credible forward into Sunday’s lineup, add in superior full-back and an additional winger, and Newcastle might have been able to ole their way through that second-half on Sunday.
So why must it be this difficult?