Newcastle United has been a Rafa Benitez free zone for over seven weeks now.
Mike Ashley having no intention of keeping the manager at the club.
The Newcastle United owner choosing instead to go down a different and more well-trodden route, rather than backing somebody with their own ideas who wanted the freedom to try and model the club in a more progressive way.
Results on the pitch are the only thing that will allow NUFC to move on from the Rafa era and we are still waiting for those to come along.
So have Newcastle United got the team/squad to do it?
Well, five signings have been made since Rafa Benitez departed, with Joelinton, ASM, Jetro Willems, Emil Krafth and Andy Carroll coming in.
Impossible to say whether or not they would have fared better or worse under Rafa but what about the players that head coach Steve Bruce inherited?
I can’t help but feel that the uncomfortable truth is, that Benitez made these Newcastle players look better than they really are.
I hope I’m proved wrong but I know where my money would be bet on.
You look at two players who also left this summer, Rafa Benitez organised and inspired them to have their best ever Premier League seasons.
Both Salomon Rondon and Ayoze Perez scored more goals than they had ever done in the English top tier.
Focusing particularly on the defence, many fans have talked about these being the best set of defenders, especially centre-backs, that the club has had in pretty much living memory.
Is that true though, or was it just Rafa’s talent and organisation that made it seem that way.
The stats show that despite fighting relegation for most of these past two seasons, in both 2017/18 and 2018/19, only two clubs outside the four conceded fewer goals than Newcastle, in each of the two seasons.
Even when Newcastle did lose games, Newcastle hardly ever lost by more than one or two goals.
Yet on Saturday against Norwich, it could and should have been at least a four or five goal win for the newly promoted, built on a tight budget Canaries.
With Tottenham and Liverpool away as two of the next three games, what will be the scorelines if we see more of that level of defending and team play.
Jamaal Lascelles – He was going nowhere in his career until Rafa Benitez arrived at Newcastle. The Spaniard made him captain and put him at the heart of a disciplined and drilled defence. We all know that on the ball Lascelles isn’t very good but on Saturday we were reminded that when exposed without cover, is the NUFC captain really that good? I think he is at least an ok player but I have a horrible feeling that Rafa Benitez in particular made Lascelles look far better than he actually is but maybe our captain is in denial a bit about that.
Fabian Schar – The back five formation suits him because he isn’t the greatest defender and so isn’t as exposed as often, which allowed him to bring the ball out of defence so well last season. He was another on Saturday who looked badly exposed and indeed against Arsenal, both he and Lascelles appeared to be blaming each other when Aubameyang was left unmarked for the winning goal. His previous club record didn’t suggest a great player and so he was a massive bonus last season and did so well – but once again, was it Rafa Benitez who took him from being a 6 or 7 out of 10 to 8 or 9 on so many occasions.
Paul Dummett – He’d made less than 50 league appearances for Newcastle before Rafa’s arrival and I think Dummett went up at least a notch or two these past few years, whether in a four or five man defence. Once again though, the more and more open Newcastle are, the more his lack of pace and other limitations are exposed. Paul Dummett is definitely somebody who massively benefits from a tight disciplined defence around him.
Matt Ritchie – A popular player who is well-liked due to his effort and workrate making up for a lack of pace and ability, in some ways. Brilliant goalscoring and assist stats in the Championship, not so great in the Premier League. Can he be effective as a winger in the to tier, in terms of contributing going forward…it’s debatable. However, Rafa Benitez reinvented him, Ritchie looking very good as a wing-back last season and more than worth his place in the team. My worry once again is that without the former manager here drilling the team in what they need to do, Ritchie will be nowhere near as effective and his weaknesses more exposed. With his over the top comments recently, I fear he is another who doesn’t want to properly acknowledge what Rafa did for him.
Isaac Hayden – Excellent in the second half of last season as Rafa Benitez got the right combination of players working together and Hayden excelled in what he was asked to do. Previous to that, the midfielder had been average. Much has been made of Isaac Hayden having played under Steve Bruce before but the reality is that over two loan spells at Hull, Hayden only started nine Championship matches. Is he another who will regret making his mouth go as this season progresses, not having appreciated what Rafa was doing for him?
Some players I wouldn’t include.
Martin Dubravka is a very good keeper regardless, although it would help if the defence don’t disappear like they did on Saturday.
Sean Longstaff has definitely got natural ability and hopefully he won’t be set back too much if this season all goes wrong.
Miguel Almiron is another, he has pace and ability to run with the ball. Rafa brought him together with Perez and Rondon, which helped all three of them play better. However, I think if given any kind of decent set-up, his natural game can make him a real asset.
So can many of these Newcastle players prove that Rafa Benitez was only incidental to their relative success these past two years, or will they look back on a time when they excelled for a limited period due to him?
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