Negativity permeates the club, and manager Rafa Benitez is as much to blame as Mike Ashley
The problem with Newcastle United is ... how long have you got?
Newcastle United’s often absentee owner Mike Ashley has been at their last two games. He went for a pizza with manager Rafa Benitez and the players on Wednesday. They have had much to discuss at a club that finished 10th last season but is now threatened with a third relegation in 11 years.
Newcastle have not won a game for 145 days. Indeed, they have not even led in one since May. They have been knocked out of the League Cup by Nottingham Forest and if that feels par for the course for the Ashley regime, a slump in the league could have greater consequences. In Newcastle’s defence, Saturday’s trip to Manchester United will be their eighth top-flight game. Five of those are against last season’s top six and another was versus Leicester City, perhaps the best of the rest. The other two, against Cardiff and Crystal Palace, were 0-0 draws that brought their only points.
Benitez is in the final year of his contract. Despite his affinity with the fans and his recognition of the potential of a one-club city, he is unlikely to re-sign, considering the terms of his current deal reportedly mean he will have to pay Newcastle £6 million (Dh29m) to leave. It feels an impasse, yet there is no evidence Ashley has an alternative plan for the future. The former Manchester United and Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon is involved in a possible takeover but previous consortia, such as that fronted by Amanda Staveley last season, have discovered that doing a deal with Ashley is not always easy.
Newcastle’s wage bill may place them in mid-table, but the headline figure is the £21 million transfer-market profit they made in the summer, the biggest in the division. It came as the context was changing. Fulham and West Ham United spent around £100 million. Wolves, Southampton and Brighton & Hove Albion also committed more than £50 million. Benitez’s unhappiness has been apparent, but it has contributed to the downbeat mood around the club.
Like his old enemy and Saturday’s opponent, Jose Mourinho, Benitez’s negative rhetoric may have spilled over into the matches. It has been reflected in negative tactics, albeit partly because of the fixture list. Newcastle had just 19 per cent of possession against Chelsea, when Jorginho completed more passes than the entire United team, and 22 per cent against Manchester City. Damage-limitation strategies helped protect the goal difference last season but the damning reality is that Newcastle have had fewest shots in the Premier League. They have had the lowest share of possession and put in the least crosses. Not great for a club with a tradition of attacking football.
Perhaps leading the line in this Newcastle team is a thankless task, but the willing Joselu looks far too limited. Benitez’s fondness for a workhorse has come at a cost to others but Dwight Gayle, loaned out to West Bromwich Albion, averages a goal every 126 minutes in the Championship and Aleksandar Mitrovic, sold to Fulham, one every 126 in the Premier League, where only Eden Hazard has outscored him. Benitez never trusted the temperamental Serb, but the fact is that Newcastle only have four league goals this season: two from defenders and two from Joselu.
Problems in the camp
Captain Jamaal Lascelles and winger Matt Ritchie had a training-ground altercation in August. Ritchie was visibly unhappy at Benitez’s decision to substitute him against Leicester on Saturday. If it scarcely seems a happy camp, there are other issues. Kenedy, a catalyst last season, has lost form. Lascelles and Jonjo Shelvey have been injured. Florian Lejeune, Federico Fernandez, Paul Dummett and Salomon Rondon will miss the trip to Old Trafford.