“Expect the Unexpected” is the unofficial motto of Newcastle United Football Club, whose fans are aware that they are on a rollercoaster ride with the most unpredictable club on Planet Football, and it is fitting the club now has a boss in Rafa Benitez who loves to surprise them and the opposition with his team and formations.
In a modern football world of intensive scouting, technology and match analysis, to keep your opponents guessing what you will do next in terms of both line-up and tactics provides a decided advantage in every game.
(Pic – An Aston Villa scout makes notes during Newcastle’s EFL Cup game with Wolves on Tuesday night)
To be predictable makes you easy prey in a fluid game of strategy and counter-strategy that changes not just on a game-by-game basis yet also mid-match as managers attempt to find the chink in their opponent’s armour.
The higher you travel up the football pyramid the more important and nuanced the tactical battle becomes which is why Pep Guardiola – witness the way his new Man City side dissected Jose’s Manchester United recently – is the highest paid manager in the game and arguably the most successful.
Master tactician Benitez is on that elite level by virtue of trophies won across Europe and is constantly active in his technical area, cajoling and instructing his players, organizing and reorganizing his team offering the insights that lead to victory as matches play out.
(Pic – Rafa Benitez gives detailed instruction to oncoming substitute Jack Colback as he comes on vs Brighton)
Rafa’s rotation policy is famous – Liverpool fans set up a website to see if anyone could guess Rafa’s exact line-up every game and most weeks, his starting XI was wildly different and impossible to predict.
Newcastle have a first team pool of 27 players, the majority interchangeable capable of playing several different positions eg Ciaran Clark the summer signing from Aston Villa has featured left-back & centre-back so far and could slot into midfield if needed – and with Benitez’s dozens of formations, the permutations are endless.
As Ireland international Clark, who faces his former team at Villa Park this week, explains, the system has been taken quickly on board by the players who already realize the benefits of it:
“I think all the lads have bought into it. “That’s what the manager does. There’s a lot of competition for places. “I think we all know that if you haven’t been picked, it’s probably not for the reason you haven’t done well, it’s probably for the reason to get fresh legs in there and keep you fresh for the next game.
With games in The Championship and The EFL Cup coming thick and fast, rotation is essential for keeping players fresh, injury free & performing at optimum levels. It is a theory proven scientifically on Rafa’s own website by his trusty lieutentant now at Newcastle Francisco de Miguel Moreno who gives 3 key benefits of the practice:
“The first reason is to prevent overload in the number of minutes played… The second is the decrease in physical performance, especially in high intensity, which comes from playing two or three matches in one week… and the third reason is to create competition within the squad.”
It is as necessary now as it will be when Benitez has steered Newcastle back into the Premier League and Europe. Recent examples of its efficacy include Manchester United’s 2007-08 squad which won a League and Champions League double without the same XI being selected simultaneously by Sir Alex Ferguson.
Of course, tinkering and changing too much or wrongly can back-fire as Newcastle found out to their cost against Wolves in the EFL Championship last Saturday. Players like Vurnon Anita, a virtual ever-present until his red card, were due a rest. Others, Aleksandar Mitrovic for one, deserved to stay in the side.
Yet one bad at the office is the exception that proves the rule and the dangers of complacency proved a lesson, one that was quickly learned and put right three days later. A 2-0 win in The EFL Cup and the reward of a Last 16 tie at home to Preston North End could be a springboard to Benitez’s first trophy at Newcastle.
Newcastle head to Villa Park on Saturday knowing a win will keep the pressure on League leaders Huddersfield and second-placed Norwich, whom Newcastle could leap-frog if they collect 3 points and The Canaries lose.
Rafa’s big selection call will come at the back as if Aston Villa are able to play a double powerful strike-force of Ross McCormack and Rudy Gestede, the latter especially being a threat in the air which Gareth Hanley would match.
If either Villain fails their late fitness tests then Chancel Mbemba would be best equipped to shackle the pace of Jordan Ayew despite an own goal last week and general off day like the team.
Yet Rafa knows it will be his opposite number, Roberto Di Matteo, who has professed his deep respect for the ‘illustrious career’ of Benitez, who will be more worried about Newcastle then vice versa.
(Pic – Rafa Benitez attended an Elite Coaching Forum recently with the best bosses in the game)
A multitude of effective attacking options are at Rafa’s disposal. Aleksandar Mitrovic is champing at the bit for a recall while Daryl Murphy was excellent against Wolves midweek and gave defenders a torrid time physically without looking like scoring. Either big man flicking onto Dwight Gayle could prove a dangerous front line.
Cheick Tiote revealed midweek he is hoping to play in a black and white shirt again soon potentially boosting Newcastle’s defensive midfield bite immensely while Isaac Hayden and Jack Colback are ready, willing and able.
Rafa will be hoping to transform the 0-0 draw in Newcastle’s penultimate game last season at Villa Park that ultimately meant The Magpies were relegated into a win so will likely field a more attacking formation.
As always with Newcastle, expect the unexpected yet with Benitez around, the surprise is usually a positive one except for the opposition. Roll up for The Rafa Raffle…
My money is on Selz; Yedlin, Hanley, Clark, Dummett; Ritchie, Hayden, Shelvey, Gouffran, Diame; Mitrovic.