Rafael Benítez is a well respected and very successful coach as backed up by his record at Valencia, Liverpool and his short stint at Chelsea. However, it was his time at Newcastle that was arguably his most difficult test so far. After being unable to save the Magpies from relegation in 2015/16, he guided them back to the Premier League after winning the Championship on his first attempt. Benítez was in charge at Newcastle for three and a half seasons, a significant achievement at a club with uncertainty off the pitch, very low investment and questionable recruitment. Despite his defensive and pragmatic tactics, Rafa was adored by the fans as they knew he had limited options with a Championship quality squad. Although they did grow a bit tireless of the lack of attacking intent.
In the league, Rafa hadn’t used a back four since the 3-0 defeat to West Ham in early December of 2018. The Spaniard preferred a 5-4-1 or a 3-4-3 depending on the degree of attacking intent, of course these formations are very similar. This essentially means there was a clear template of three central defenders, a double pivot in midfield and a lone striker with what happening around this template was based on how the opposition played.
Defensively, Newcastle dropped deep into a 5-4-1 with the middle centre back dropping to act almost as a sweeper. This was essential as they dropped into a low block. The double pivots in the midfield would move across to help out in the wide spaces and the wide player on the opposite side would drop in centrally to offer support. They looked to congest space, press the man in possession and make it difficult to play through the centre. This forced the opposition wide and with their three centre backs and Martin Dúbravka in goal, they weren’t worried about crosses. Another reason for forcing the ball out wide was so they could press aggressively due to the opportunity to counter-attack out wide.
During 2018/19, Newcastle were second for long ball per game, only behind Burnley. Rafa’s side also played the third fewest passes per game. This shows Newcastle’s direct tactics but would recycle possession around, mainly between the defenders and goalkeeper, before playing it long. This is helped by the personnel as their main choice centre backs were Schär, Lejeune and Lascelles, all of which are adept passers of the ball. The midfield pivot, most often Isaac Hayden and Mohamed Diamé, could also drop into the defence and should Newcastle beat the opposition’s press, they would carry the ball forward and attack the space.
Generally, Newcastle had two main forms of attack. One method was using Rondon as the target man and have Pérez play off him. This meant that Newcastle would play long balls to Rondon and with his physicality he could fend off other players. Once winning the ball, he would then play it off to Pérez who would be making a run forward with other players running forward in support. This method wasn’t their main one but could be integrated with their preferred method of attack, going down the left flank.
Newcastle would utilise the left flank more as Matt Ritchie possesses greater natural ability than DeAndre Yedlin. With Ritchie being able to link up with then record signing, Miguel Almirón who joined in January, they could attack the space more effectively than down the right. This was to either create crossing opportunities or to release Almirón to dribble at the opposition, utilising his ability to run at defenders.
Benítez’s side profited most when they caught the defence out with their direct approach or when Rondon won the first ball and they utilised the space created around the Venezuelan. With their crosses, dynamic running and shooting even from distance, this highlighted Newcastle’s emphasis to create a chance quickly. Newcastle preferred the chance of losing possession than losing the momentum and advantage that comes from counterattacks against a disorganised defence.
All of this means they weren’t the most attractive team to watch but Rafa Benítez got the best out of that squad by playing that way. Now under lifelong fan, Steve Bruce, they have a different approach that at the time of writing, has resulted in two Premier League defeats and one goal scored. Already the fans aren’t happy with performances and lack of defensive stability but following after Rafa wasn’t going to be an easy job for anyone. Having broken the club record and brought in Saint-Maximin, anything but Premier League survival will be a massively disappointing season.