Miles Starforth's match analysis: Newcastle United 0 Blackburn Rovers 1
Defeats became the norm last season. And the season before it.
So it’s a sign of how far Newcastle United have come under Rafa Bentiez that this 1-0 loss came as such a surprise.
And it was a surprise, a big surprise.
But maybe the most surprising thing, aside from Benitez’s team selection, was the manner of the defeat.
Blackburn Rovers were the better team. They started well and ended well. They deserved the three points.
Six days earlier at Elland Road, Newcastle had bossed and bullied Leeds United. And thanks to Dwight Gayle, they had comfortably won an eighth successive Championship game.
The odds had been on a ninth league win – and 10th in all competitions – but there were warning signs early on in front of another sell-out crowd at St James’s Park.
There was also an uneasiness among some fans before a ball was kicked given that Benitez had made six changes and left Gayle and Jamaal Lascelles on the bench.
Gayle didn’t make it on to the pitch until the 85th minute.
Benitez had opted to play Aleksandar Mitrovic up front ahead of Gayle.
And Mitrovic and his team-mates never got going.
Blackburn took the game to them. They moved the ball better and defended better.
United struggled to play a telling final ball and visiting goalkeeper Jason Steele – who had presumably been expecting a busy afternoon against the league’s leading scorers – hardly had a save to make, while Karl Darlow was kept busy at the other end of the pitch.
Newcastle were uncharacteristically wasteful with possession.
Benitez became more and more agitated with his team and referee David Coote as the first half wore on.
Christian Atsu, picked ahead of Yoan Gouffran, was dangerous when he got the ball, but Steele didn’t really have a save to make until Jonjo Shelvey, wearing the captain’s armband in the absence of Lascelles, tested him with a shot from distance in the 69th minute.
Ciaran Clark tested him from the resulting corner.
By then, Jesus Gamez had been stretchered off with a suspected broken collarbone.
Gamez’s full league debut had lasted just 55 minutes, the defender having landed awkwardly after going for an aerial challenge.
Nothing went right for United.
Ayoze Perez, playing behind Mitrovic, was denied the space he craved, while Matt Ritchie, for once, wasn’t able to make a decisive contribution in the final third of the pitch.
Chancel Mbemba, making his first league start in more than two months, looked uncomfortable, which was maybe understandable given his lack of minutes on the field.
Blackburn’s breakthrough came in the 75th minute.
A short corner routine saw the ball delivered into the box for Charlie Mulgrew, who got the better of Isaac Hayden to volley past Darlow.
Chances came and went in the dying minutes, but Newcastle lacked conviction in the box.
And Gayle uncharacteristically put his late opportunity over the bar.
Long after the final whistle, Benitez came through to the media suite at St James’s Park.
Benitez’s expression told its own story. He was disappointed, not angry. Disappointed at his players, Coote and himself.
“I didn’t like the way we started the game,” he said.
“I didn’t like the way the game was being stopped all of the time with free-kicks and corners without giving us the advantage.
“I didn’t like our reaction when we were losing, we have to do better. I didn’t like the chances we didn’t take and I didn’t like my decisions.
“We’ll have to analyse what happened before the next game, make sure that we don’t make the same mistakes.”
Was one of those decisions his choice of team? Benitez didn’t elaborate.
Still, the players that came into his side should have done better. Mitrovic should have done better, and so should have Hayden, Mbemba and others.
If there was any complacency in the team, that should be gone now.
And this performance – and result – will be quickly forgotten if Newcastle can win tomorrow night’s EFL Cup quarter-final against a Hull City side which is preoccupied with staying in the Premier League.
It’s likely that we’ll see a very different United side, both in personnel and application, at the KCOM Stadium.