Newcastle deserve to be in relegation zone '“ they have fight but lack quality

Newcastle United are where they deserve to be right now.

Monday, 18th December 2017, 9:12 am
Isaac Hayden against Alexis Sanchez.

Rafa Benitez’s side are deservedly in the Premier League’s relegation zone.

However, the 2,900 fans at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday saw enough to convince them that this team is capable of turning a corner.

Jamaal Lascelles and Isaac Hayden

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Benitez’s players were applauded off the field after their 1-0 defeat to Arsenal.

Yes, Newcastle, beaten by a stunning volley from Mesut Ozil, could have no complaints about the result.

And yes, it’s all about results. United have taken just one point from a possible 27. That’s eight defeats from nine games and, unquestionably, relegation form.

But United stayed in the game. They fought for 95-odd minutes at the Emirates Stadium.

Jamaal Lascelles and Isaac Hayden

They didn’t lack fight, but they lacked quality in the final third of the pitch.

And that must be addressed in next month’s transfer window, whatever happens with the ongoing takeover talks between owner Mike Ashley and would-be buyer Amanada Staveley.

Newcastle created chances but couldn’t take them. Perhaps the best opportunity fell to Ayoze Perez, who headed a cross from substitute Matt Ritchie wide late in the game.

Perez had been fielded up front alongside Joselu, who gamely attempted to lead the line on an awkward afternoon for United.

Their final ball also let them down.

Newcastle, however, also made it awkward for Arsene Wenger’s team.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Arsenal fans had opted to stay at home – there were empty seats dotted around the stadium – and many of those that had turned up because frustatated at their sides’s failure to build on their lead.

The home side had started well. Ainsley Maitland-Niles had hit the side netting early in the game after making a powerful, unchecked, run forward.

Their breakthrough came in the 23rd minute. Newcastle failed to clear a ball from the right, and it dropped for Ozil, who volleyed it past Rob Elliot, who had been recalled to the starting XI by Benitez.

“Sometimes you’ve just got to hold your hands up when someone strikes the ball like that and just say ‘well done, fair play’,” said a frustrated Elliot after the game.

Fair play, it was a superb strike, though Benitez’s defence should have done more to clear the ball before it reached Ozil.

Florian Lejeune stopped a goal-bound shot from Ozil, deflected off Elliot, later in the half.

Perez, Isaac Hayden, Jacob Murphy and Joselu also came back into the team, which was set up in a 4-4-2 formation. The idea was to deliver the ball quickly to Joselu and for Perez and others to play off him.

Newcastle slowly grew in confidence after the break.

They had half-chances, and they limited Arsenal’s opportunites at the other end of the pitch.

They were in the game until the final whistle, which was more than most United fans had expected before a ball had been kicked.

The reaction to the defeat on social media was mixed, but those in the away end knew what they had seen. The players were applauded off the field, having given just about everything they had against Arsenal.

Benitez has what he has. United are where they are.

Fortunately, Newcastle have Benitez, who was lauded by Wenger in his programme notes.

“He’s a top-class manager, and I can understand why he’s taken this challenge at Newcastle,” said Wenger.

“It’s a club with a massive potential. The crowd’s absolutely fantastic there. It’s a big club – a very interesting club – and a very interesting challenge, so I’m not surprised that a manager of his quality is tempted by that.”

Benitez isn’t above criticism – and fans are quite entitled to question his decisions – but without him, United’s campaign would unquestionably unravel further.