Do Newcastle lack leaders? Rafa Benitez’s finding out just how his players handle pressure

Rafa Benitez at Ipswich.
Rafa Benitez at Ipswich.

Just what happened at Portman Road?

Just how could Newcastle United lose so badly?

Daryl Murphy, one of the few players prepared to speak to the media after the defeat, labelled the performance as “awful”. It was.

Rafa Benitez’s weary expression told its own story as he emerged from the tunnel to speak to the media after his team’s 3-1 defeat to Ipswich Town on Easter Monday.

And what he said was surprising – and worrying.

“I thought that we were ready, but it seems that we were not,” said Benitez. “We were not focused and mentally ready.”

Newcastle needed leadership on the pitch at Portman Road. Where was it?

The 1,952 travelling fans at the stadium didn’t see much in the way of leadership on the field.

Daryl Murphy, one of the few players prepared to speak to the media after the defeat, labelled the performance as “awful”. It was.

Others, including captain Jamaal Lascelles and Jonjo Shelvey, trooped out in silence.

Shelvey’s feet hadn’t done his talking.

The midfielder, such an influence on the pitch in the first half of the season, was uncharacteristically wasteful with the ball.

Ipswich had got into United. And they didn’t like it.

They stopped Shelvey playing and got down the flanks at every opportunity.

Newcastle didn’t know what had hit them.

Freddie Sears, David McGoldrick and Tom Lawrence didn’t give Lascelles and his defensive colleagues a minute’s peace.

The damage, however, was limited by Derby County’s late equaliser against Huddersfield Town later in the day.

United are six points in front of third-placed Reading and a further point ahead of Huddersfield, who have a game in hand.

And they need a maximum of five points from their remaining three games to secure the second automatic promotion place.

Chris Hughton’s Brighton and Hove Albion secured a deserved and long-overdue return to the top flight on Monday evening. They’ll secure the Championship title with another win.

Hughton guided Newcastle to the same title in the 2009-10 season.

Back then, United only lost four games. The Ipswich defeat was Newcastle’s 10th of the campaign.

Hughton had the likes of captain Kevin Nolan, Nicky Butt, Alan Smith and Steve Harper to lead his players through difficult games.

And Nolan, for one, didn’t shirk his post-match responsibilities as captain.

Does Benitez have enough leadership in his team?

Certainly, United wouldn’t be where they are if they lacked character, but they’ve been found wanting in recent weeks.

Are they feeling the pressure?

There were errors all over the pitch. There wasn’t enough from Yoan Gouffran and Mohamed Diame going forward, the midfield didn’t function and defensive mistakes saw them concede three goals.

Benitez will have learned more about his players in recent weeks than he did in the first half of the season when they were swaggering through games.

Newcastle, beset by injuries, have lost that swagger since the turn of the year.

Benitez, as manager, can only do so much.

It’s up to the players to get the club over the finishing line.

And the sooner they do it, the better.