Rafa Benitez has taken one of the hardest jobs in the Premier League. Newcastle United has never been an easy job, but, with the expectation of escaping relegation, it has become near impossible. But that is exactly what Benitez will be expected to do just that. Benitez has coached some of the biggest teams in the game and has some great accomplishments to his name. What he did at Valencia alone should be commended. That being said, he star has certainly waned since leaving Liverpool in 2010, but he’s still a great manager. Newcastle currently sit in 19th with 24 points and a game in hand. Can he save Newcastle from being relegated, though?
To avoid the drop, Newcastle need to stop losing. At the very least, turn those losses into draws. Benitez is the man for this job. One thing that Benitez has been good at is creating a solid defense. While his teams have conceded too many draws in the past (in fact, that is his biggest weakness), this could be quite the boost for Newcastle. Even if Newcastle draws the game in hand, they will be tied on points with Sunderland in 17th and closer to inching out of relegation. If they can ensure that they keep gaining at least a point a game, it will go a long towards guiding them to safety.
Even more importantly, each game left in the season has become like a cup match. That is usually a cliche, said when at a time like this, but for Newcastle, it is true. Lose, and Newcastle are out of the competition, essentially. This becomes even truer when you look at who else they play in the ten games remaining. Hidden among the reaming fixtures is a home game against Sunderland, an away match at Norwich, and a game at Aston Villa. The important of winning these matches cannot be overstated. The Sunderland game, especially, is what you consider a six-pointer since one of those teams will be relegated this season. The rest of the league is far enough away to be relatively safe.
Luckily for Newcastle, Benitez excels as a cup manager. He is a great tactician. It is what sets him apart from most other managers. At Liverpool, you saw one of the most successful cup teams in England, which is an accomplishment considering the owners he had to work with (which also bodes well for him at Newcastle). At Chelsea, he took an aging squad and won the Europa League. He is a great tactician, especially when looking at games on an individual basis. Newcastle are going to need this skill to survive.
The only question facing Newcastle under Benitez is will the players respond to his methods? Benitez has been criticized as being rather mechanical or authoritarian as a manager, and it seems that he is starting his time at Newcastle the same way. His style also requires a great deal of tactical discipline out of his players, something that none of the previous Newcastle managers have asked of their players. Jonjo Shelvey and Andros Townsend are definitely two players that aren’t renowned for their tactical nous. The same could have been said about Steven Gerrard when Benitez took over Liverpool as well, though (Shelvey’s playing style similarities to Gerrard were a primary reason he was initially brought to Liverpool).
It is very possible that this will be the move that saves Newcastle from relegation this season. In Benitez, they have hired an intelligent, experienced manager who knows the Premier League and can build a strong foundation for the club. That has never been the concern. The problem facing Newcastle was never going to be the manager, but the problems facing the club that have been there for years. Whether or not Benitez can succeed in the face of those will be the biggest challenge right now.