The Championship is a tough league; it’s going to require depth in the squad, grit and sturdy players to succeed. The wins and results will not always be pretty and tonight was the perfect example of that.
A scrappy 2-0 win on the road versus a good Derby County side, which was also the first game back after a 2-week international break, proved to be good enough to give Newcastle United their 5th win in a row (4th in a row in league games) – something they haven’t done since October/November 2014.
This was also the club’s second away win in a row, matching all of last season’s away wins. This has been an issue since the Pardew days. The 2-0 result now sees Newcastle United go as high as second in the table. Here are my thoughts on the match:
- You can definitely start to feel that something special is materialising at Newcastle. Rafa Benitez has really changed the tactics and mentality of the club. They are truly playing the game of football; he has re-educated the club to play his way (as Guillem Balague put it). The squad has depth now and Benitez has plenty of options to go to; which will prove necessary with the handful of games the team will be playing this season.
Regardless, this isn’t the same team as last year. Could it be because the players who did not want to be here are now gone? The leadership change? Or is it as simple as saying that the Rafa effect has turned things around? After the match, Benitez said this: “Players who were here before, maybe they weren’t playing at the level expected. Now they are doing everything to do well for the team, the club and the fans. Everyone now is trying hard and that’s the best news for the manager” – A subtle jab at Wijnaldum, Sissoko & Janmaat?
- How about the story that is Yoan Gouffran! A year ago, he was not fancied by Steve McClaren, could barely crack the bench and was almost on the move in the January window. Fast forward eight months later – he is now starting for the club in the Championship and contributing goals. This system fits his style of play a lot more and you can tell he is actually enjoying the game out there.
A couple of weeks ago against Brighton, he struck the crossbar from well outside the box and tonight he made amends when scoring an absolute wonder-strike from a Jonjo Shelvey corner. The ball was driven to the back post; Gouffran waited for it to drop and then volleyed it into the bottom right corner. It was quite the finish.
A big part of defending as a unit is having a capable back line who are going to take charge, defend and communicate. Vurnon Anita has been spectacular and Benitez seems to have finally found the perfect position for the little Dutchman. Lascelles was struggling at the beginning of the season but has found his feet again and is taking control of the team and the back line; it is quite nice to see a captain who cares for the club and for his teammates.
- The pre-game controversy came with the benching of Isaac Hayden in favour of Jack Colback. Hayden had been one of the most consistent and best players early on in the season for Newcastle United, so you can understand why the fans were questioning Rafa’s decision. However, it seems like Benitez will go with this logic and plan of rotating players on a constant basis; it does not necessarily mean you’ve been dropped for performance reasons.
The manager’s intentions are to keep everyone fresh, because as previously mentioned, this is going to be a long and tiring season. Newcastle play 6 games in 18 days and there will a lot of travelling involved – with the depth the squad has, there is absolutely no reason to overwork and tire players out. I wouldn’t be surprised if Benitez went back to Hayden on Tuesday at QPR and makes a few more changes.
The league and schedule is going to keep getting tougher and tougher. The players cannot become complacent and think this will be a cakewalk. Jamaal Lascelles said in the post-game interview that they are happy about the win but cannot be complacent and need to focus on their next opponent. That is the proper mentality to have and it is encouraging hearing it from the club’s captain. We will see what happens on Tuesday at QPR, but for now, it’s one game at a time.