“If any player has different opinions, they can give their opinion,” said a solemn Rafa Benitez. “After we have to stick with the plan. That’s it. Everybody knows that.”
The Newcastle manager was talking about Jamaal Lascelles’ absence in the immediacy of a 2-1 defeat at home to Chelsea. Like much at the most northern league club in England at the minute, the game sparked yet more debate and controversy.
Lascelles has been the eyes and ears for Benitez inside a dressing room largely unrecognisable from the demotivated one the Spaniard inherited from Steve McClaren 29 months ago.
Lascelles brought unity with his honesty and integrity and Benitez guided a young footballer to excel in defence. The pair have been good together and good for Newcastle United. The absence, which is said to have come because the player did not want to play on the right of the three central defenders used against Maurizio Sarri’s side, felt significant.
There was mention of an ankle injury, something the player himself alluded to in a tweet late on Sunday night, when the dust still had not settled in the north east.
The penalty - typically contentious - that led to Chelsea’s opening goal, came when Marcos Alonso got on the wrong side of Fabian Schar. There was a touch of the ball and a tangle of legs and arguments both for and against the decision of referee Paul Tierney.
It was not mentioned that was where the captain of the club would have been playing but for a disagreement on the training ground, where Benitez chose Federico Fernandez to marshal a back five that at times was a back nine. It was a day for defenders and shape, just not Lascelles, a player who had been the focus of interest from Chelsea during the summer.
Much criticism has followed for the style of Newcastle’s performance. Jamie Redknapp said it was “not football”, as Newcastle passed the ball 128 times to Chelsea’s 913.
Benitez was similarly without apology for the way his side played, perhaps reacting the most forcibly to any perceived questioning in the entirety of his time at the club when he dismissed the statistics that showed his side had just 19 per cent of possession.
“I remember a long time ago, I think it was when Guardiola was at Barcelona and they played against Atletico and they had 80 per cent against 20 per cent and they lost 2-0,” he said, curtly.
“Possession is now just for the TV for the stats. It means nothing. It means nothing. Possession means nothing.
“You have to maximise what you have. If I’m telling you now you have to write with a piece of paper and a pen, you will say ‘no, I have a computer’. Each one has his own tools.”
It is a strange mood in Tyneside, where the vast loyalty for Benitez and the job he has done wrestles most noticeably in the lack of noise inside the stadium to defensive displays. St James’ Park was quiet against Chelsea.
Even the Newcastle player Jacob Murphy wrote on his Instagram account, ‘not attractive, but effective.”
Kenedy, the on-loan Chelsea winger and Jonjo Shelvey were both unavailable (ineligibility and injury respectively) and that is a huge part of the side’s flair, but criticism still came and the febrile nature of the situation was possibly best exemplified in the decision of the Evening Chronicle, Tyneside’s local newspaper, to ban the use of any perceived inflammatory comments from Richard Keys from now on.
The beIN Sports presenter had tweeted during the game that: “If Big Sam sent a team out to play like this he’d get hammered. This isn’t Newcastle.’ It received 1600 comments.
What was perhaps lost to Keys is that Sam Allardyce perhaps would have blamed the exact same reason - lack of spending - for such a performance, as Benitez.
There is huge sympathy for Benitez’s lot in the north east, but it feels a struggle. There is disharmony, and that is never a good thing where Newcastle United is concerned. The club was relegated in 1989 and 2009 amidst similar internal fighting.
The club could desperately do with the uplift of a cup run. There has not been one of note since the Europa League campaign of 2013, which ended at the quarter-final stage against Benfica. Domestically, there has not been a game in the last eight since 2006, when Alan Shearer was still playing.
Newcastle face Nottingham Forest away on Wednesday in the EFL Cup. Benitez’s options are limited due to injury and suspension. Given the heightened significance of Saturday’s trip to Manchester City, against whom the debate about style started last season, when Newcastle defended so deeply at home, it is likely to be a weakened team.
That will doubtlessly kick-start more debate, and more tension, none of it creative.
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