It wasn’t supposed to be like this for Rafa Benitez. The Spaniard has been a popular figure at Newcastle United, but there was no sign of adulation for the former Liverpool boss on his first anniversary at St James’ Park as his side fell to a miserable 3-1 home defeat to Fulham on Saturday.
The performance was disappointing but should certainly not be used as a yardstick for their progress under Benitez in the space of 12 months. The questions, though, will focus more on another feeble attempt to make their own background a fortress on a day when Slaviša Jokanović impressive Cottagers comprehensively played them off the pitch.
Newcastle United have been stunned at home.
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) March 11, 2017
The resulting picture is far from disastrous for the Magpies, of course. They remain top of the Championship table – albeit on goal difference – after their first league defeat since January 2nd, and are still odds-on to for automatic promotion back to the Premier League.
However, after collecting seven points from three tough away fixtures to fellow promotion-chasers Brighton, Huddersfield and Reading, their inability to solidify their place at the head of affairs will understandably be a source of immense frustration for Benitez.
Newcastle have now lost five times in front of their own supporters this season, which is a worrying omen for a team likely to be battling to retain their top-flight status next season. Benitez knows that maintaining their impressive record on the road will be a tough ask next season, should they achieve promotion, and he’s now tasked with producing a marked improvement in the closing weeks of the current campaign with Brighton and Huddersfield lurking menacingly.
Not even the most ardent Geordie could argue with the result. Fulham were vastly superior from start to finish, buoyed by a metronomic performance from Tom Cairney in midfield and a more headline-grabbing one from 16-year-old Ryan Sessegnon, who gleefully condemned seasoned competitor Vurnon Anita to one of his darkest afternoons in black and white.
Fulham maintained control throughout and soared into a three-goal advantage by the hour-mark, ruthlessly exploiting their hosts’ error-strewn play and boosting their own promotion hopes (they’ll move into the top-six with a win over Blackburn Rovers on Tuesday).
Exasperation on the supporters’ part, at this point, is far from knee-jerk. Fulham joined Sheffield Wednesday, Huddersfield, Wolves and Blackburn in walking away from St James’ Park with all three points but, yet walking away having dominated proceedings rather than nicking a smash-and-grab win to leave Newcastle cursing their luck.
There were echoes of previous defeats when the visitors executed a game-plan effectively while Newcastle lacked cutting edge in the final-third. In the 1-0 loss to Wednesday, Newcastle completed 463 passes – almost doubling that of the Owls – yet managed four fewer shots with nine. Against Blackburn, the Magpies managed 15 shots but only two on target. Blackburn had two on target but still scored the game’s only goal.
Championship play-off chasers Sheffield Wednesday produced a superb away display to beat top-of-the-table Newcastle United at St James' Park
— Josh Bunting (@Buntingfootball) December 26, 2016
Plainly, for a side who possess more firepower than any other side in the division, Newcastle have been sadly wasteful in front of their own supporters, something they can ill-afford in the top-tier.
Perhaps the most worrying thing for Benitez is the persistent defensive mistakes that are costing his team greatly, personified by Paul Dummett’s poor clearance on Saturday to gift Sessegnon the opportunity to make it 2-0 and kill the game off.
It was only three weeks ago, after a 2-2 draw at home against Bristol City, when Benitez bemoaned errors at the back yet his players are yet to convince onlookers that they have rid themselves of the anxiety and sloppiness that has characterised a lot of their home form.
— Lee Ryder (@lee_ryder) February 26, 2017
Yes, they have, for the most part, defended stoutly this season but defensive lapses have crept into their game with too much regularity for Benitez’s liking, and the Spaniard knows that is the single most destructive element that could derail their charge towards promotion.
Newcastle’s labouring attempts to cement their place at the Championship’s summit is thrilling for the neutrals. If Huddersfield take advantage of their game in hand, Benitez’s team will be merely four points clear of them in third place, with Brighton sandwiched in between.
Benitez has unquestionably galvanised Newcastle and lifted much of the gloom that came inevitably with the ignominy of relegation last year, so not going up would be viewed as a catastrophe. However, to make sure it’s a happy summer, the players will have to show the pace, movement and slick passing that left them bereft of a response against Fulham.
The demands are always intense for a Newcastle manager when it comes to overseeing stylish football at St James’ Park, and Benitez can expect that sense of penetrating scrutiny to be turned up high for their next two home games against Wigan and Burton Albion, two sides at the wrong end of the table.