Ben­itez is forg­ing a squad greater than the sum of its parts

Sunday Sun - - Football - Mark Dou­glas

IT is 17 years since New­cas­tle United had three Premier League wins on the board this early in a sea­son.

To put that in con­text: Rafa Ben­itez has done what seven full­time Mag­pies man­agers since Sir Bobby Rob­son have been un­able to do. And – with apolo­gies to the class of 2017/18 – Ben­itez’s bunch prob­a­bly doesn’t boast the same col­lec­tive amount of tal­ent, tech­nique or rep­u­ta­tion that many of those squads had.

New­cas­tle have been many things since their top-flight sta­tus was down­graded from peren­nial top-half dwellers to per­sis­tent strug­glers, but this year’s squad are show­ing signs that they can blaze a trail as a team that is greater than the sum of its parts.

That is not to den­i­grate the tal­ent in this side. In Mikel Merino, they have a flour­sh­ing young tal­ent whose com­po­sure on the ball is ex­tra­or­di­nary. And in Matt Ritchie, six as­sists in United’s first five games, they have a winger who has surely laid to bed those ques­tions about whether he be­longs in the Premier League.

But from goal­keeper to their most will­ing of £5mil­lion strik­ers, this is a New­cas­tle team who are best­ing teams cob­bled to­gether with greater re­sources and far su­pe­rior rep­u­ta­tions.

They are do­ing that through ef­fort, dis­ci­pline, su­pe­rior coach­ing and – most cru­cially – strain­ing every sinew for a St James’ Park that is ap­pre­cia­tive of an hon­est group who be­lieve in Ben­itez’s New­cas­tle project. To all of them, New­cas­tle is the des­ti­na­tion – not a means to an end.

You could not al­ways say that about New­cas­tle teams assem- bled us­ing Gra­ham Carr’s blue­print. Ge­orginio Wi­j­nal­dum, Moussa Sis­soko and Yo­han Cabaye were ex­cel­lent play­ers, but let’s not pre­tend that they weren’t sold the vi­sion of a club that could be the ve­hi­cle for their own am­bi­tions.

That is not the case for the likes of Ritchie, Isaac Hayden or Ja­maal Las­celles, the youngest cap­tain in the Premier League who has re­sponded with vigour to a new chal­lenge.

Back in the days be­fore Ben­itez, United’s am­bi­tious im­ports could be re­lied upon to turn it on when the big guns came to town. Alan Pardew used to main­tain their hunger by urg­ing them to show what they could do when they took on the likes of Ar­se­nal, Chelsea and Manch­ester United. But it tells you ev­ery­thing that New­cas­tle hadn’t been able to beat Stoke since De­cem­ber 2013.

This United side don’t pick and choose. It doesn’t al­ways go right – see Hud­der­s­field at the start of the sea­son – and they will no doubt find them­selves with too much of a qual­ity gap to vault at times this term (late Au­tumn’s fix­ture list is a tough one). But as long as they keep post­ing per­for­mances as hon­est as this, they will con­tinue to ce­ment their re­la­tion­ship with a Ty­ne­side pub­lic which is grow­ing to love the play­ers as much as they do their man­ager.

Given the sus­pi­cion sup­port­ers have viewed some of those sim­ply pass­ing through in re­cent years, that is some trans­for­ma­tion. Ben­itez has built a squad in the im­age of the club’s fans. New­cas­tle boss Rafa Ben­itez (right) talks to Ja­maal Las­celles (cen­tre)

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