Friday evening was supposed to be the start of something special, a signal of intent, a message to all that Newcastle were genuinely the team to beat in the Championship this season. A team to be feared and a team capable of winning the title.
The incredible optimism brought by Benitez’s ‘Rafalution’ had many fans believing a Championship title would be relatively straightforward. Friday’s fateful fall to Fulham is a stark wake-up call to all associated with Newcastle. This league offers no easy victories and no free points; everything must be earned.
The performance against Fulham was just about the worst Newcastle fans could have imagined. With so much optimism before the game, to see the players perform so badly was soul-crushingly disappointing. And for all the talk about stone-wall penalties, one thing remains painfully clear…Newcastle are still a poor side.
Now it is only one match and we have 45 games left to play so there is no point being too dramatically pessimistic about this result but it was a really sobering performance from United. What we must remember is that this is the beginning of Rafa’s transformation not the end of it. With five debutants starting the game, we surely shouldn’t have expected the team to have gelled perfectly already.
Putting the disappointment of the result to one side, the game did present a few significant insights into Newcastle and the future. The performances of two United players were particularly concerning. Jack Colback was so worryingly dreadful Benitez had to hook him from the field after an hour of misplaced passes and mindless persistent fouling. How on earth the ginger one is ahead of the bald one is a total mystery. And Perez, given the opportunity in his preferred position, just off the top-man, could not control the ball, make a pass or even make a decent run. In that position Perez – who has undoubted talent – should have sparkled, dazzled and excelled against a pretty ordinary Fulham side. He blew it big time, clearly flummoxed by the expectation placed at Newcastle’s feet.
The other truly horrifyingly obvious misdemeanour was Newcastle’s inability to defend from set pieces. The Championship may be a step down in quality but it will still punch you in your nether-regions should you make such schoolboy errors. Anybody who knows anything about football knows that Fulham striker Matt Smith is good at pretty much only one thing…he can head the ball. To leave him with a free-header from around 8 yards out is frankly criminal. It was a mistake though and we can all make those, so we shall forgive young captain Lascelles for that one.
Going forward Newcastle were even worse, unable to register a shot on target in the first half. That is unacceptable. And if you think the addition of a great striker will help, Lionel Messi could have been playing up front and it wouldn’t have made a slight bit of difference. Gayle did the best he could, it’s not his fault that his teammates provided him with absolutely nothing to work with. A creative midfielder is desperately needed. Matt Ritchie tried hard but showed his lack of ability when incredibly shooting directly at the goalkeeper when it would have been easier to score. You get the feeling he may produce something every now and again but Newcastle can’t rely on him to provide goal-scoring opportunities game in game out. Diame will be a welcome addition to the midfield we saw at Fulham.
Rolando Aarons also has an important part to play and he should have started the game. The decision to play Anita at right midfield does have logic, providing Janmaat with a bit of cover so he can bomb down the right as he so loves to do. Having said that it made the midfield very conservative and Rafa soon realised he needed to add some impetus to Newcastle’s attack.
As disappointing as the game was, it’s important to remember that we are still evolving as a club and a team. It will be interesting to see how the players respond. But if anyone thought this was going to be easy, this has just shown otherwise.