Rafa Benitez being left behind as Newcastle sleepwalk to relegation dogfight
Where does Rafa Benitez go from here? The Newcastle United manager has always divided opinion, but his team's poor start to the campaign has provoked a storm of criticism. Newcastle have taken a single point in the first three games and on Wednesday were dumped out of the Carabao Cup by Nottingham Forest.
Their negative tactics in a 2-1 defeat at home to Chelsea generated widespread scorn. A season of struggle lies ahead on Tyneside and there is little chance of Saturday's visit to Manchester City offering any respite.
The 58-year-old believes it will take a "miracle" to keep the Magpies in the Premier League. Benitez is no stranger to unlikely events -- Liverpool's Champions League victory in Istanbul after being 3-0 down to AC Milan in 2005 is part of football lore -- but top-flight survival with this squad may be beyond even the Spaniard's powers.
Benitez is not cut out to be a relegation firefighter. He wants to win trophies. The man who won La Liga with Valencia and brought the Champion League to Anfield does not relish scrapping for points at the foot of the table.
The trip to the Etihad highlights a number of Benitez's problems. He does not have the players to compete with City's star cast. There is another issue, too. Pep Guardiola has changed perceptions of how the game should be played in the Premier League. The Catalan's team pour forward and go for the opposition's throat. Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool take the same approach. Guardiola delights in causing chaos -- for opponents. City's shape and positional sense often defy traditional logic, but Guardiola has the players and belief to make things work.
The Newcastle manager has neither. When Benitez works with a squad he does not trust, he moves to his default mechanism: keep things tight, aim for a clean sheet and hopefully pinch a goal. It is pragmatic in the extreme, and it leaves him vulnerable to criticism when things go wrong.
A simplistic analysis is that the game has moved on and left Benitez behind. It is easy to look at the struggles of his bitter rival Jose Mourinho at Manchester United and group the pair together. Each arrived in English football in 2004 and had a similar impact (if in a very dissimilar style) to Guardiola and Klopp. There is a big difference between the Spaniard and the Portuguese, however: Mourinho is labouring at Old Trafford despite spending almost £350 million and works with a squad full of high-class performers. Benitez is toiling with a largely Championship-level set of players.
One of the many claims made in the wake of the defeat to Chelsea is that fans at St James' Park would rather see their team lose 5-4 and play in a flamboyant manner than perform like they did against Maurizio Sarri's side. Views like this ignore the fact that Newcastle do not have the capacity to get into shootouts against opposition of any quality.
Another component of Benitez's character that irks his enemies is his reputation for being "political" or "difficult." He has expressed his unhappiness with the transfer policies of Mike Ashley, the Newcastle owner. At Liverpool a decade ago he became embroiled in an internal civil war at Anfield, and short, unhappy spells at Inter Milan and Real Madrid did little to change perceptions. He is a man of strong convictions and reacts accordingly when he believes promises made at boardroom level have been broken. During his brief time at Chelsea, the club's hierarchy gave Benitez a clear set of parameters for him to work within. Both sides kept their part of the bargain, and club and manager separated on good terms.
In the eight years since he left Liverpool, Benitez has often seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. His tenure at Napoli was a success -- even though he was dealing with another awkward owner in Aurelio De Laurentiis. Bringing Newcastle into the Premier League and keeping them there was an impressive feat. Yet Ashley's 11-year period of ownership on Tyneside has produced plenty of evidence to suggest the club is a maelstrom that would swallow up ambition. The manager is swimming against the tide.
Some in the world of English football do not hold the Spaniard in high regard. He has rarely sought to build alliances with rival managers or players in his charge. He is not the sort of coach who feeds egos or mollycoddles individuals. "I'm not their friend, I'm their boss," he said during his Liverpool days. "I'm 25 years older than most of them. I'm not their mate." This businesslike attitude has alienated some over the years.
The team's relative success in the last two campaigns gave Benitez's antagonists little chance to vent their feelings towards him. If this current form continues it will be open season on the Newcastle manager.
Unless there is a change of ownership at St James' Park, Benitez will leave next May. The nightmare scenario is that the team are relegated. Even if they stay up, finding a club that is competitive and ambitious in the Premier League may be difficult. He was never in the frame for Arsenal. West Ham United have made overtures on a number of occasions, and this job may come up again before too long. Given the ownership policies at the London Stadium, that may be almost as unsuitable as life on Tyneside.
Has the game passed Benitez by? The result at the Etihad will not answer that question, nor will Newcastle's performance over the next nine months. It would be interesting to see Benitez attempt to slow down City or Liverpool with a top-six squad. It is hard to see an opportunity like this arising. He may need to go abroad again.
Picking the wrong club has a huge knock-on effect. Benitez might have done this once too often. Good manager, bad choices. Unless Ashley decides to spend some money or sell up, Newcastle could prove to be the worst of them for Benitez.