Why Rafa Benitez always remained confident in Newcastle United's battle against the drop
While Newcastle United aren’t completely out of the relegation picture, Rafa Benitez has always remained confident on Premier League survival.
Back in October when the Magpies failed to win any of their opening 10 fixtures, much was made about the club’s worst start to a season in 120 years.
Past records were somewhat stacked against Benitez’s men. Only three out of 11 top flight teams not to taste victory in that timeframe have avoided the drop.
A win at the 11th attempt in a 1-0 win against Watford at St James’s Park sparked a three-game winning streak but Newcastle have continued to flirt with the bottom three all season.
It is only now, after 13 points from the last 18 on offer, that a bit of daylight has opened up between them and the relegation zone.
Much like last season, Newcastle look to be stronger in the second half of the campaign.
Last season, the arrivals of Kenedy and Martin Dubravka in January – along with Islam Slimani, who made less of an impact but who helped spur Dwight Gayle and Ayoze Perez to new heights – was key to the turnaround in fortunes.
This time around, while Miguel Almiron’s club record move has undoubtedly provided a spark and excitement, it is arguably a handful of players who were already at the club at the start of the season but barely involved in first-team affairs that have contributed hugely.
Florian Lejeune had expected to miss most of season with a knee injury yet has recovered well-ahead of schedule to form an exciting back three with Jamaal Lascelles and Fabian Schar.
Isaac Hayden’s desire to leave in the summer coupled by a reckless red card at Cardiff City in August is all-but forgotten after a series of professional and solid performances.
And Sean Longstaff, barely considered, has already achieved cult status as well as being likened to Michael Carrick.
Benitez openly admitted he’d never imagined at the beginning of the campaign a central midfield pairing of Hayden and Longstaff – but that is a huge testament to both players.
And while Newcastle’s fortunes might not have changed in a way he expected, Benitez insists he knew his squad would grow stronger.
He added: “In terms of players, we had these players. Then we lost Lejeune, Hayden was not right at the beginning, Longstaff was not even there.
“Then after January we have Lejeune, we have Hayden, we have Longstaff, and the other players coming back from injuries. So we are a little bit stronger than we were before.
“Maybe this one is not playing, but another one is doing well.”
Lejeune’s comeback has not only increased defensive solidity, but also provided an additional outlet for Newcastle in building from the back.
While Fabian Schar’s stunning goal against Burnley may have got the headlines, Lejeune put in another composed performance to go along with his excellent display on Saturday against Huddersfield Town when his long-range passing caught the eye.
His return is another reason why Benitez was confident his side would improve from their tough start.
“Is it important for us to have Lejeune back? Yes, because it increases the competition,” added Benitez. “But also Lejeune, on the ball, you can see that he is quite good and makes a difference.
“The reality, I think some people didn’t agree with me at the start of the season when I said the squad could be better if everything was fine.”