Rafa Benitez may be taking on an impossible task. Hired Friday to manage Newcastle after the dismissal of Steve McClaren, he now has to guide his new club through a fierce relegation battle and out of the drop zone. Can he do it? That's going to be a tough question to answer.
First, let's look at the task at hand.
Currently, Newcastle are in 19th place and in the relegation zone in the English Premier League, with 24 points from 28 matches. They have a game in hand on Sunderland and Norwich City -- who are in 17th place with 25 points and 18th place with 24 points, respectively -- but have have a worse goal differential than either rival for safety. They've scored just 28 goals so far this season and gave up 53 for a -25 goal differential, while Sunderland have scored 35 and Norwich have scored 31, and both of Newcastle's rivals have given up 54 goals.
That's all a technical way of saying that Newcastle have been dreadfully bad this season, and that Benitez has his work cut out for him if he's going to save this team. While all three teams battling for safety have been quite poor this season -- Aston Villa are pretty well locked in to finish last, with the league's worst goal-scoring rate by far and just 16 points to their name -- there is no comparison to be made right now that particularly flatters the Magpies.
And Newcastle shouldn't really hope for another team to start struggling and drop down into the relegation race. Even Crystal Palace (who haven't won in seemingly forever) and Swansea City (who just got their first two wins in seemingly forever) have an eight-point cushion on Sunderland. While that's not the biggest gap to overcome in the world, with just nine games left in the season for most of these teams -- 10 for Newcastle -- there's not much time to get the results needed to close in.
With that in mind, let's see what Benitez has to work with and what he might possibly be able to do.
On paper, Newcastle have a perfectly decent squad who arguably should be somewhere in the midtable range of the EPL. They've got some solidly talented veterans paired up with a number of high-upside younger players in a mix that has the potential to be a fun team to watch.
The trouble is that Newcastle have spent much of this season dealing with wave after wave of injuries. Tim Krul missed most of the season, Papiss Cisse missed long stretches and Cheick Tiote was unavailable for much of the season, all among a wide variety of other injuries major and minor. That's left them stretched thin for much of the campaign, something that Benitez's predecessor, Steve McClaren, rarely dealt with well.
They've also had to deal with long runs of dreadfully poor form from several key players. Cisse has scored only twice all season. Yoan Gouffran has gone from key player to little-used reserve because he's been so poor every time he's played. Steven Taylor has been a liability in defense. Ayoze Perez has been the definition of "streaky," tending to have two or three good games between six-plus match slumps.
Then there's been the wild unpredictability of their younger players. Georginio Wijnaldum leads the club in scoring, but he had more matches in which he's completely disappeared from than he's impressed in. Chancel Mbemba tends in impress in one match and then make a series of mind-numbing mistakes in the next. If you've forgotten that Aleksandar Mitrovic is a Newcastle player, that's okay -- sometimes it seems like he's forgotten too.
Newcastle's squad should be much better than their results, but this season it seems like everything that could possibly go wrong has. What about how they'll work with their new manager, though?
The tactics and fit
One of the things that Benitez is widely known for is his almost dogmatic approach to football tactics. Except under extreme circumstances, he plays just one style: a 4-2-3-1 formation that's set up to be as defensively strong as his squad can manage while maintaining a quick-trigger attack that aims to disrupt and penetrate their opponents' back line.
From our Newcastle blog
From our Newcastle blog
Under Benitez, the back four plays as most modern defenses do -- the fullbacks get up to support the attack (though not typically as high as many managers are asking their fullbacks to these days) and the center backs drift up the pitch in attack as well in order to keep the gap between midfield and defense from growing too large. The two central midfielders, or the "pivot," generally play with one guy set up as a deeper playmaker to move the ball up to the attack quickly and be available as an outlet to reset the attack when needed. His partner normally functions as a ball-winning player with more defensive responsibilities, but will often be asked to break forward to support the attack as well, especially when his team needs someone to "crash the box" during periods of sustained attacking play.
The front four can play in a variety of different ways depending on how Benitez sees his players' strengths, though it's certainly up for some debate as to just how accurately he judges those strengths these days -- his questionable player evaluations at Napoli and Real Madrid are a subject for another time. Typically, however, he asks his wide players to cut inside to more directly support the striker, while the striker and attacking midfielder behind him work to play the ball to create and exploit holes in the opposing defense.
If we had to guess at how Benitez would line up his team against Leicester City on Monday, it would look something like this.
There are a few different changes we could see to this as well. Siem de Jong might be more in Rafa's mold for the man behind the striker, but so too could Moussa Sissoko. If the Frenchman is moved from the wing, Andros Townsend is the most obvious choice to replace him out wide. If Ayoze Perez is moved from that central role, he could replace Mitrovic up top, or one of Seydou Doumbia or Cisse could get the nod as well.
Then there's midfield, where Jonjo Shelvey seems like the only relative lock. His ball-winning partner is really up in the air -- Anita's athleticism and workrate make him a good fit for Benitez, but Jack Colback has played more regularly this season and also has the benefit of playing more in recent matches. Of course, then there's Tiote, a mainstay in Newcastle's midfield in recent years and their most talented player, but injuries and poor form have limited his playing time this season.
The chances of success
The question is whether this group can make Rafa's tactics work. There's reason to think they can -- this is a fairly talented group after all -- but given their season-long struggles you can't expect them to just flip a switch and start dominating every game. It's going to take time to get everything clicking, but time is a luxury Newcastle simply do not have.
Add that to the fact that Benitez has fallen short of expectations in three of his last four jobs -- Real Madrid and Inter Milan dismissed him halfway through the season after underwhelming team performances, and Napoli let him walk after failing to qualify for the Champions League -- and there's a lot of reason for Newcastle fans to be pessimistic.
Make no mistake, hiring Rafa Benitez does not automatically mean they're going to be safe. They've still got a long road ahead if they're going to finish at least 17th in the league to stay up. They "only" have to be better than Sunderland and Norwich City to be safe, and each of those teams have a lot of problems of their own, but considering Newcastle's recent trajectory, that will be an enormously difficult task.
Benitez does likely improve Newcastle's chances of survival -- with how the team was slumping and vulnerable under McClaren in recent weeks, relegation was starting to look like a foregone conclusion. Benitez and his steadier hand probably gives them a 50-50 chance of staying up, which isn't ideal, but is far better than what they had. It's going to be a white-knuckle ride to the finish for Newcastle fans.