The 2015/16 season was one of ultimate disappointment for Newcastle United fans as they watched their club get relegated into the Championship for the second time in seven seasons. Then-manager Steve McClaren was unable to get the best out of his side and were resigned to 18th place. For the fans, this had been coming as in two of the three seasons prior, the Magpies had finished 15th and 16th. This was a side that were hanging on by the skin of their teeth.
Afterlife of the Championship
So after a year spent in the Championship and with esteemed manager Rafael Benitez now given a full season to sort out his tactics, Newcastle went on to win the league, pipping rivals Brighton and Hove Albion in stunning fashion. It’s with this win that Benitez successfully guided the Magpies to an immediate return to the Premier League, whilst keeping some key players in the team. In fact, since being relegated, Newcastle signed 11 new players, and almost all starters, while going on to sell 12 members of the squad. Players such as Andros Townsend, Georginio Wijnaldum and Moussa Sissoko were major departures but Benitez didn’t need them, he had his own philosophy.
Even with all the ins and outs, the key moments of that transfer window were seeing players such as Jonjo Shelvey and Ayoze Perez decide to stay after being convinced they would be back in the Premier League soon enough. Yet the major influence of those players wanting to stay was Benitez, with the Spaniard already proven around the world how good of a manager he is. After his successes in Spain and in England already, with Liverpool’s Champions League triumph, the ex-Real Madrid coach was the right man for the role.
Now into his first full season with the Magpies in England’s top division, Benitez has not only helped Newcastle fans feel secure about staying in the league, he’s also made his side quite a force to be reckoned with. The men in black and white currently sit in 9th place, just above the mid-table sports and certainly knocking on the door of European football. Nobody would have dreamed of such a fantastic start which has seen just two losses in the last eight league games.
Are Newcastle’s current players good enough for the Premier League?
Now looking at the squad, there are players there that you wouldn’t really expect to make it into the top six clubs. Would someone like Jamaal Lascelles replace the likes of Stones, Jones or Koscielny? Would Christian Atsu be favoured over Eden Hazard or Leroy Sane? And finally, would Dwight Gayle be your replacement for Sergio Aguero, Roberto Firmino or even Marcus Rashford? Ultimately, Newcastle may not be trying to break into the Top 6 but if Benitez wants to bring the team back into the glory-filled days, there’s a looming question over whether any of these players can take them to the next level.
Ex-Liverpool star and now pundit Jamie Carragher didn’t hold back when he stated the following:
“They’ve got Championship/Premier League players but they’ve got a Champions League manager and that is why they are where they are. They’re not a top-six team; they won’t finish in the top six I have no doubt about that. Rafa Benitez needs help if they are going to push forward. Until he gets better players he might not be able to improve them going forward.”
Just how much of Carragher’s statement is true? Newcastle look like the perfect example of what any team can achieve when they have good players with an exceptional manager. Whilst none of these players would be winning any individual awards anytime soon, the collective effort is stronger than the individual, and Newcastle are definitely proving that this season. Whether or not they would have been in this position without Benitez is another story, but it is irrelevant now when looking at how well he has progressed with the club.
Can the Magpies be successful this season?
It is indeed the quality of Benitez’s managerial record that has definitely helped improve Newcastle but you cannot take anything away from the players who have worked hard as a group to get great results, such as the 3-0 drumming of West Ham or the point at home to Liverpool. They are a resilient side who work hard in midfield and looking at the tactics employed, it’s revolved around the midfield as when Shelvey gets the ball, he’s immediately looking to spray passes and dictate play. It’s not just him however, the defence are working hard to ensure they are not breached and Lascelles has been performing well for someone who has not got a lot of experience at the top level. He has helped keep the defence sturdy which has seen the Magpies only concede 9 goals in 10 games, a better percentage than Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea.
If anything, it will be the attack that needs a boost as goals have been hard to come by. From the eight clubs above them in the league, only Burnley (9) have scored less. Is this what Carragher meant when he said there were Championship players in the side? Looking at the top scorer last season, Dwight Gayle had a terrific year, scoring 23 goals in the league for his side and coming joint-second top scorer. However, this year has been a conflicting start for the 27-year-old as he is yet to score in 8 appearances so far. Is the step-up too much? Having played in the Premier League for Crystal Palace before, Gayle was never known as a prolific scorer and hasn’t proved anything different this season.
Maybe Carragher’s comments are accurate in detailing most of Newcastle’s squad as Championship-quality. Maybe Rafael Benitez is a major part of the reason for Newcastle’s success so far but would fans really care about this? As long as the Magpies continue to pick up points and remain in the Premier League, it doesn’t matter how the job gets done, just that it does. The priority now will be for those players to prove they can compete in the league and aim for the Top 6, a position Carragher has said they will not get. If Benitez continues this form however, who knows if this will truly be Newcastle’s great comeback?