Rafa Benitez knows exactly what he has at Newcastle United. And, just as importantly, he knows what he doesn’t have at the club.
That’s why his team play the way they do.
They play as a team, and, for the most part this season, the whole has been greater than the sum of its parts.
Television pundit Jamie Carragher was asked after Monday night’s 1-0 defeat to Burnley what United had lacked at Turf Moor. He replied “quality”.
And he’s right. Benitez has quality in his squad, but not nearly enough of it.
There wasn’t much between Newcastle and Burnley, and a mistake from Ayoze Perez led to the winning goal, scored by Jeff Hendrick in the 74th minute.
Perez wasn’t alone in being careless in possession. Mohamed Diame, handed his first Premier League start of the season, gave the ball away cheaply in midfield, and not much stuck to Joselu up front.
That said, Benitez’s side didn’t really look like conceding a goal.
They were comfortable for the most part, and Benitez, believing they had the measure of Burnley, put off making a change.
Arguably, a change was overdue when Perez lost possession, and by the time Isaac Hayden – who hadn’t started after being troubled by a minor problem ahead of the game – came on, it was too late.
Newcastle were 1-0 down.
Dwight Gayle and Jacob Murphy followed Hayden on to the pitch, but they couldn’t get their team back in the game.
The bench looked weaker without midfielder Mikel Merino, who had missed out with a back injury.
Merino – who is seeing a specialist this week – isn’t expected to be back for Saturday’s home game against Bournemouth.
The Burnley defeat wasn’t a disaster, but it was a dose of realism.
Yes, Newcastle have made a positive start to the season – the club sits ninth in the league – and yes, a mid-table, or better, finish is a possibility for a team which many expected to struggle after a season out of the top flight.
But had Benitez got a little bit more quality in the summer, then the outlook could have been even brighter at this stage of the season.
Depending on what happens with the proposed sale of the club, that could be addressed in January’s transfer window.
Benitez, undoubtedly, does need more quality in midfield and attack, and that will cost money.
For the moment, United must press on.
The team may only get a handful of chances against the better Premier League sides, so players need to be clinical with chances.
Equally, the team can’t afford to make too many mistakes at the other end of the pitch.
Three of Newcastle’s four wins have been by a one-goal margin.
If Joselu, Merino or anyone else is to score, then the goal needs to count.
Benitez, crucially, has turned United into a competitive Premier League team. However, this season, the club’s first back in the division, the margins will be particularly fine.
And we saw that at Turf Moor.