Benitez stays positive despite Newcastle's flaws

LONDON • The placard in the away end said: "SOS Rafa".

Save our souls? Long before new manager Rafael Benitez can cure Newcastle United's wounded soul, he must win hearts and change minds.

Looking at the squad he has inherited, that might prove easier said than done.

While there were a few encouraging signs for Newcastle on Monday - a more structured, more spirited performance, which could feasibly have earned them a point - there was also cause for concern.

Benitez kept emphasising afterwards that he had seen "a lot of positives", but he must have also recognised the flaws within this team, such as a lack of composure from back to front, and a shortage of players who have the will, rather than the skill, to make a difference.

Since starting work on the training ground on Saturday, Benitez has been talking about the need to work on the basics.

The fundamentals, though, are what this Newcastle team struggle with.

Ask Jonjo Shelvey to hit a 50-metre pass with the top of the boot, fading perfectly into a winger's path, and he can do it with ease.

Ask him to control himself and a game in the way that Benitez demands of his midfielders - who in the past has meant Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric - and it is a different matter.

Typically, Shelvey had his moments on Monday, hitting some of those trademark passes, particularly as Newcastle chased the game in the second half.

However, he and Vurnon Anita did not do enough to control midfield as Benitez likes.

The defence was certainly more compact and composed than in the lamentable 3-1 home defeat by Bournemouth, which was Steve McClaren's final game in charge, but there is still an awful lot of room for improvement.

For now, though, Benitez, has no choice but to put his trust in the players he has inherited.

But they will have to work extremely hard on eradicating the flaws and finding consistency - not just from match to match but from minute to minute.

"They have to play with great commitment, working really hard, but they have to use their brain and try to play good football," the new manager said.

"We need to try to play football, try to make the right decisions. For this reason, we need to think."

That is the concern with Newcastle. They are not a team of thinkers. The concern is not that they lack talent but they lack consistency, discipline, maturity, stability and all the characteristics that Benitez usually looks for.

It is all about keeping one's head under pressure.

In the Tyne-Wear derby against Sunderland on Sunday, Benitez and his players are going to sample much more of that.

"Our game against Sunderland is a derby and it will be important for everyone," said the Spaniard.

"But I have a feeling the fans are really good and they are our No. 12 for the next game."

THE TIMES, LONDON, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2016, with the headline 'Benitez stays positive despite Newcastle's flaws'. Print Edition | Subscribe