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