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Benítez’s Idling at Newcastle Exposed by Mitrovic’s Flying Start for Fulham

Benítez’s Idling at Newcastle Exposed by Mitrovic’s Flying Start for Fulham

Saturday, 1 September, 2018 - 06:45
Rafael Benítez has strict budget constraints under Mike Ashley at Newcastle but loaned out – and then sold – Aleksandar Mitrovic, who scored 12 times for Fulham between January and May. Photograph: Lee Smith/Reuters
London- Paul Wilson
It won’t last long, but the infant Premier League table is about as close to telling porkies as a league table can ever get at the moment, giving the wholly misleading impression that big can mix with little in England and that any team can reach any stratum.

Liverpool are level on points with Spurs at the top, for example, the team that spent massively over summer and the team that kept the checkbook in the sideboard drawer. At least those two were expected to go well, along with Chelsea, adapting quickly to life under their new manager, but the fourth team on maximum points were widely tipped for relegation. Watford were another side who failed to throw their money around in the transfer window – in fact they appeared to have been weakened when Richarlison joined Everton – though no one appears to have told them yet. If Spurs play as well at Vicarage Road on Sunday as they did at Old Trafford at the start of the week, Javi Gracia’s players will have their work cut out to stay unbeaten, though for the moment the fixture can be billed as a top-four clash.

Manchester City are slightly off the pace, though not by as much as Manchester United, Arsenal and West Ham. Brighton and Crystal Palace are already making a bid for a berth in mid-table, along with newly promoted Fulham, and while the other newcomers are finding wins difficult to come by, as might be expected, so are more established Premier League acts such as Southampton, Burnley and Newcastle.

Perhaps Newcastle are not all that well established at the top level, this is just their second season back up from the Championship, though it is a testament to the tactical nous and organisational flair of Rafael Benítez that even under unsympathetic ownership and financial constraint everyone assumes they will be steady enough to survive. Benítez was criticised for being too steady at the weekend, for not having enough of a go against Chelsea at home, to which he replied that you can only drive the car you have. In which case the underpowered Citroën 2CV will probably get another outing on Saturday, as Newcastle are away from home against the Rolls-Royce that is Manchester City.

As first glance the Benítez philosophy appears to make perfect sense; indeed there is a fashion at the moment for getting the best out of players you already possess, in the manner of Gracia at Watford or Mauricio Pochettino at Spurs, rather than breaking transfer records in the manner of Liverpool or continually demanding bought-in improvement like José Mourinho at United.

Yet look a little closer and you will see there is all the difference in the world between Newcastle’s thrift, which in reality is skinflint level parsimony inflicted by the owner on what might otherwise be a thriving concern, and Tottenham’s carefully judged inaction in the last transfer window. What Pochettino had up his sleeve, and what Benítez will never be granted as long as Mike Ashley owns the Tyneside club, was the luxury of a £25m January buy from Paris Saint-Germain biding his time in the wings. Spurs are not penny-pinching for the sake of it, they are keeping control not only of expenditure but of the composition of the team. At the moment no one deserves to lose their place to a big-money signing – even Lucas Moura only got his chance because Son Heung-min is playing at the Asian Games – and Pochettino is one of those managers who likes to keep everyone involved.

Jürgen Klopp is the same, as it happens, though people are starting to ask about the whereabouts of Fabinho now that Jordan Henderson is struggling to claim a regular place in the Anfield starting lineup. Flashing the cash on new faces does not always improve team harmony and, as can clearly be seen at Old Trafford at the moment, neither does bemoaning the fact that not enough money has been spent on certain areas of the side.

Which brings us back to Benítez at Newcastle, who neither spends much money nor complains about the lack of it, but concentrates instead on making sure his modest motor runs as smoothly as possible in a race dominated by noisier, more powerful engines. Or does he? Newcastle have scored only two goals in their three matches. Aleksandar Mitrovic already has three to his name at Fulham.

Admittedly it was in the Championship, but there was something revealing about the way the Serbian striker began racking up the goals as soon as he joined Fulham on loan last January. He scored 12 for his new side in the second part of the season and he has now made a flying start in the Premier League.

Mitrovic is still only 23, scored in the World Cup for Serbia and had enough physical presence to dominate Burnley’s experienced James Tarkowski and Ben Mee at the weekend. Possibly the player’s physicality is one reason why Benítez never fully trusted him – he was once described as a red card waiting to happen. However, when you are making ends meet on the kind of budget Ashley allows you will rarely encounter the finished article, you have to make the best of what you come across. Or drive the car you have, as Benítez would put it.

Mitrovic became fed up of driving around in second gear at Newcastle. Benítez prefers a patient, defensive approach with the occasional counterattack, not Mitrovic’s game at all. The striker is enjoying himself more in London with plenty of crosses to attack and a greater willingness to get forward. Benítez says he would employ five strikers if he could but, citing Mitrovic as evidence, Newcastle supporters tend not to believe him. Should Mitrovic’s goals for Fulham make a critical difference at the end of the season, Benítez might do well to drop the motoring analogy before he ends up accused of being too careful a driver.

(The Guardian)

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